NEW YORK, N.Y. — A Russia native son can say he’s a Grammy winner — sort of.
Dusty Francis, now of New York City, sings with the classical ensemble, True Concord Voices. Its recording, “Far in the Heavens: Classical Music of Stephen Paulus,” was nominated for Best Choral Performance, and one track of the album was nominated for Best Contemporary Classical Composition.
“It didn’t win Best Choral Performance, but it did win Best Contemporary Classical Composition,” Francis said by phone from his home in Manhattan, Tuesday, “so I’m trying to figure out if I can say I’m a Grammy winner, when it was the composer who won.” He laughed, something he does often during the conversation about how a kid from Russia who planned to study pre-med in college ended up in a career in classical music in the Big Apple.
Although his Grammy nomination was for singing, Francis is making a solid name for himself as a choral conductor. He leads the Ars Musica Chorale, based in New Jersey, and the Park Slope Singers, based in Brooklyn; he is choirmaster and organist of the All Saints Episcopal Church in New Jersey; and he serves as assistant conductor of the New York City Master Chorale.
He also sings with the Manhattan Chorale in New York City and the Skylark Vocal Ensemble in Atlanta, as well as the True Concord Voices, which is based in Tucson.
“It takes a bit of juggling,” he admitted. “Sunday to Wednesday is a different job in a different location every day. They are all very important to what I do.”
Francis, son of Linda and Doug Francis, of Russia, played trumpet in the Russia High School band. He graduated in 2006 and planned to study physics or pre-med at Xavier University in Cincinnati.
“But about a month before I was to start, I realized I wanted to study music and be a high school music teacher,” he said. He expected trumpet to be his primary instrument. Because Russia High School doesn’t have a choir, the only singing he had done was in church at St. Remy and in some community theater productions in Versailles.
“But I had some dental surgery done while I was in college. I put the trumpet down then and I never picked it up again,” he laughed. He did become a high school teacher for a brief time. He taught music in the private St. Xavier Academy during his sophomore and junior years at the university.
And teaching was still his plan as he looked for graduate schools.
He earned his Bachelor of Science in music education and then enrolled in the University of Maryland to study choral conducting. The goal of being a band teacher had given way to a new goal: teaching vocal music.
“I went to Maryland because of a teacher,” he said. He studied with Dr. Edward Maclary.
“It’s a fantastic program. He’s an incredible teacher,” Francis said. “I thought I’d do two years and then go teach high school.” But the young man who had changed his mind from pre-med to band and then band to vocal music changed his mind again during his second year at Maryland.
“The group I recorded with for the Grammys — they were called the Tucson Chamber Artists at that time — I was a last-minute replacement. They flew me out to sing the low bass part,” he said. Singers from around the country comprise the ensemble.
“After that first concert, I kept getting asked back,” he said. As he neared graduation, he began to think about moving to New York City to build a conducting career. And then he got a call from a high school in Cincinnati: Would he accept a position as music teacher there?
He was in a quandry about how best to use his new Master of Music degree. So, he did what lots of young people do when they need help to figure out the next step. He called his mom.
“I’m thinking about moving to New York? What should I do?” he asked her.
“If you don’t go to New York now, you’ll regret it your whole life. You can always teach later,” Linda said.
So, in August 2012, Francis took on NYC.
“I’ve always had a little bit of a love affair with New York. I figured if I was going to go for it, I might as well go big,” he laughed some more. “It’s been great. I’ve been really lucky to find challenging and fulfilling work, which is not always the case in my field.”
He’s come by his various positions both by answering ads and through referrals by friends and colleagues. He had applied to sing for Ars Musica through a connection he had made in the Tucson group. When the conductor learned Francis was also a conductor, he hired Francis to be the assistant conductor.
“When he left a year later, the board liked what I had been doing and they asked me to conduct,” said the man who comes back to Russia for visits about three times a year. The New York City Master Chorale contacted him and asked him to join them as assistant conductor. He saw the job at the church in a posting but found that he knew someone who knew someone who knew someone, so his application got more notice than it might have otherwise, and he got the job.
“For Park Slope, I answered an ad and was lucky enough to win,” he noted. On April 30, he’ll take another big step forward. He’ll make his Lincoln Center conducting debut, leading the New York City Master Chorale in Domenick Argento’s “I Hate and I Love.”
He has good advice for anyone who hopes to make it in the music business.
“Be ready to work harder than you ever thought you’d have to. Be willing to take chances. Don’t burn bridges. Be nice to every single person you meet,” he said.
Eventually, Francis may return to school for a doctorate and then teach at the college level. But right now, “I love being in New York,” he said. “I love to go to museums. I love going to Broadway shows.” And he appreciates the cultural diversity of the big city and the variety of food that diversity allows.
“If I’m honest, my favorite thing is to eat,” he laughed yet again. “There’s food from all over the world.” He especially enjoys French, Indian and Italian cuisines. This summer, he’ll spend two months in Italy, perfecting his Italian language skills.
“Things are great,” he said.
Reach the writer at 937-538-4824.