Thomas Wilkins is headed to Phoenix to guest-conduct the Phoenix Symphony and Miriam Fried, one of the world’s pre-eminent violinists, in a concert that features Brahms’ Violin Concerto,” Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 and Márquez’s Danzón No. 2.
Wilkins, principal guest conductor at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles and music director of the Omaha Symphony, is the first Black conductor to hold a conducting position with the Boston Symphony.
We caught up with him to talk about the road that took him from a third-grade field trip to the Norfolk Symphony to the realization of a lifelong dream that trip inspired.
Question: Do you come from a musical family?
Answer: Yes and no. My mother was a church organist at one of these little storefront churches down South, but not on a consistent basis.
Q: What was your first instrument?
A: I started on violin in the fourth grade, but only because everyone had to start on violin. Then I was allowed to switch to an instrument of choice by fifth grade, so I switched to cello. Then tuba became my secondary instrument. And in college, tuba became my primary instrument. So I’m kind of a bass-clef guy.
Q: What inspired your passion for classical music?
A: I’ve wanted to be a conductor since I was 8 years old. This is a year before I started violin. My third-grade class got on a bus and went to hear this thing called the Norfolk Symphony. This man comes out and starts to wave his arms and this incredible sound happens. I thought, “Gosh, that’s where I want to be is right there in the middle of all that.” So that became my lifelong dream.
I would take my toy soldiers, set them up like an orchestra and pretend I was conducting them (laughs). It’s a little bit profound and a little bit weird at the same time. It’s one of the reasons why to this day I still love doing children’s concerts — which is one of the things I do with the Boston Symphony — because I get how profound and life-altering the experience could potentially be. Even if it doesn’t turn someone into a musician, music still has that power.
Q: You have twins. How old are they?
Q: Are they into classical music?
A: They both started very early, and they chose their instruments themselves. One is a flautist and the other is a harpist. They started in second or third grade and they’re both really talented. I say that as a conductor, not a father.
Q: You say it a little bit as a father, don’t you?
A: (Laughs) Yeah, the smile on my face is the dad part.
Q: How old were you when you conducted your first concert?
A: I shared a concert in high school with my band director, believe it or not. I must have been 16 or 17. It doesn’t mean I knew what I was doing, but it did mean that I had the opportunity to wave my arms. I had a really cool band director. If he couldn’t be at school, he would instruct the office not to hire a music substitute and completely give me the rehearsal. They would just hire a substitute teacher to come in and make sure nobody threw chairs across the room.
Q: Were you interested in the pop music going on around you growing up?
A: I was a typical kid. So I was quite aware. Part of my life was before desegregation, so there was a certain body of music that was just going on in my neighborhood. But after desegregation, you end up having different kinds of friends, and you’re introduced to different kinds of music. So by the time I’m in high school, and certainly by the time I’m in college, I’m listening to everything. Even now, if you look on my iPod, it’s everything from k.d. lang to Willie Nelson to Miles Davis. I think that’s kind of an important part of being a musician.
Q: The symphony website makes note of the fact that you’re the first Black conductor to hold a conducting position with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. What impact would you say your race has had on your career?
A: To the extent that a little kid who looks like me can look at me and say, “Oh my God, that’s also a possibility for my life,” that’s when it means the most to me. Beyond that, I don’t think about it very much.
Q: Were you involved in the selection of the pieces in the program you’re conducting here?
A: They had engaged Miriam to do the Brahms. The rest of the program, I built around the Brahms violin concerto. Marquez is probably one of the first serious classical composers to come from Mexico. And then the Tchaik 5 is probably one of my favorite Tchaikovsky symphonies. The idea of the program is that everyone is sort of being true to themselves as a composer from the place that they’re from, so everyone is comfortable in their own skin. We have a sense of who Brahms is. We clearly know that Tchaikovsky gives us a Russian voice as Marquez gives us a Mexican voice. So in a sense, for me, it’s all folk music. But it’s folk music wink-wink, although in the case of Tchaikovsky, he does insert folk music into his compositions.