After years of apprenticing and performing at opera houses throughout Italy, conductor Christopher Franklin ’90 has learned certain strategies for dealing with that country’s unruly musicians, infamous for interrupting rehearsals with loud conversation, laughter, and complaints.
“In Italy, they eat conductors for lunch,” says Franklin, noting that it’s sometimes necessary to “start the relationship with a kind of mini-explosion, just to prove that you have fire and conviction enough for them to follow you.” Demonstrating the wide range of gestures he’s perfected from the podium—fiery disapproval, withering impatience, a lyrical upwelling of backbone—he says, “conducting is about charisma, and if you’re not convincing on the podium, you’re going to hear it in the music.”
Though fluent in Italian, German, and French, Franklin recently had to brush up on an entirely different language: Minnesota Nice. He was back in St. Paul last fall, making his debut with the Minnesota Opera in its season-opening La Cenerentola (Cinderella). “Everyone is so polite,” Franklin observes from his dressing room at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, recalling his friendly introduction to the orchestra players three weeks before. He was still marveling at the way the brass section (“usually the football players of the orchestra”) listened quietly as he instructed the woodwinds. “They’re all very fine players, and discipline is not a problem,” he says. “Still it’s my job to pick up the rug and find out what’s underneath.’’
The son of University of Pittsburgh baroque musicologist Don Franklin, young Christopher spent his formative years in West Berlin, studying violin from age six, and “conducting Beethoven with a pencil in our living room.” After returning to the states for high school, he was keen on finding a college with a strong international program, where he could study languages as well as music. “At 18, I wasn’t ready to decide whether music was my career,” he says. “That’s why Macalester was probably the perfect place at the perfect time. If I’d gone to Juilliard, I would have done music all day, every day. But here I played on the soccer team and I was concertmaster of the orchestra,” he says. “Mac was a place where you could try everything and see where it took you.”
“If I’d gone to Juilliard, I would have done music all day, every day. But here I played on the soccer team and I was concertmas- ter of the orchestra,” he says. “Mac was a place where you could try everything and see where it took you.”
For Franklin, it first took him to Grand Marais, Ely, and New Prague—the small Minnesota towns where then-music professor Edouard Forner went to recruit Midwestern student musicians while giving his own students a chance to perform for wider audiences. During one of those trips, Franklin got his first chance to conduct an orchestra, “and let me tell you, being a young musician, conducting an orchestra for the first time is a life-changing moment,” he says. “To comprehend that the communicative and expressive qualities of a group of musicians playing together is endless. You’re moving your arms, and they’re playing, and you realize conducting is just the most incredible thing.’’
Professor emeritus of music J. Michele Edwards taught Franklin’s first conducting class. She recalls, “Christopher could add the kind of musical significance to his gestures that you don’t see in a lot of first-year students, so he could actually indicate what he wanted to hear. He also listened carefully, which is a critical talent for a conductor, and had a good rapport with people.”
Convinced he’d found his calling, Franklin left Mac with a degree in music and German literature, going on to earn a doctorate at the Peabody Conservatory. Along the way he studied conducting with Charles Bruck at the Pierre Monteaux School for Conductors, worked with Seiji Ozawa at the Tanglewood Music Center, and earned a Fulbright Fellowship to the music conservatory in Saarbrücken, Germany.
The winner of two international conducting competitions, with apprenticeships and performances that have taken him from La Scala to Mexico City, Franklin’s musical CV reads like a world atlas. This year, he’ll perform a U.S. concert tour with tenor Juan Diego Florez, conduct The Barber of Seville in Peru, and tour with Italian orchestras in Padua and Genoa. Though he and his wife, Sicilian soprano Rossella Bevacqua, recently renovated a 17th century apartment in Lucca, Italy, Franklin admits they don’t spend as much time there as they’d like. “In this business, you really have to go where the work is.”
Though equally at home with the symphonic repertoire, Franklin has a special affection for “all the moving parts” in opera, and the creative energy that comes from knowing that “all hell can break loose.” Fortunately, things were incident-free during Cinderella’s run at the Ordway, with reviews praising Franklin’s “uncompromising tempos” and phrasing that “easily captured Rossini’s special ebullience.” Indeed, the Minnesota Opera was so happy with him that it has invited him back next fall to conduct the series opening production of Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte.
Although he’s gaining a reputation as a maestro to watch, Franklin much prefers the word mestiere. “Conducting is an art form, of course, but in Italian mestiere means artisan or craftsman. It’s a craft that you learn by doing and watching over a lifetime,” he says. “When I’m on the podium, the times that the hair has risen on the back of my neck have been when I’ve let the orchestra do what it can, just guiding it like a horse going over a jump. When you realize that, you discover that there aren’t many bad orchestras out there,” he says. “Only bad conductors.”
St. Paul writer LAURA BILLINGS COLEMAN is a frequent contributor to Macalester Today.