Symphony Hall can sometimes feel like an insular place but back in February, after the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Asia tour was canceled amid growing concerns over coronavirus, the ensemble threw open its doors and hosted a free “Concert for Our City.” With works by Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, and Brahms alongside Huang Ruo’s “Folk Songs for Orchestra” and George Walker’s “Lyric,” and with an appearance by Sphinx competition winner Sterling Elliott as cello soloist, the program seemed to hold a mirror to both the orchestra’s august tradition and to the makeup of a diverse, multiethnic city. It seemed to draw unapologetically from the classical repertoire’s vertiginous heights while keeping its delivery planted firmly on the ground. And at the orchestra’s helm for this occasion, the most broadly public-facing event of the BSO’s season, was its youth and family concerts conductor Thomas Wilkins.
From the podium that day, Wilkins seemed to put the BSO players at ease, and drew a kind of relaxed excellence from the orchestra. Just as telling, however, was what happened when he stepped off the podium between each selection. Or to be more precise, he waded into the audience and addressed a large sold-out crowd as if they were a small group gathered in his living room. He cracked jokes. He told stories about the music. Without condescension or affectation, he compared the plot of “Eugene Onegin” to his own middle school crush. He passingly referred to Brahms and Dvorak as dudes. And he told the kids in the crowd to practice their instruments because music was a pathway, in his words, “to growing up whole in a breaking up world.”
If the afternoon made one thing clear, it was that the BSO needs more of Wilkins. In an intensely fraught cultural moment, he is one of the field’s most forceful advocates. His persuasiveness flows from a sense of authenticity that is self-evident, from a natural charisma, and from his intense commitment to paying forward through his own life’s work what he sees as a profound debt he owes to music itself.
“You could say that music literally saved my life,” Wilkins said recently, speaking by phone from his home in St. Petersburg, Fla. “I was a poor kid, with a single mother on welfare, living in a housing project. Music forced answers to all the questions kids have in those situations — do I dream? Do I go to college? What do I do with my spare time? What’s the nature and character of my friends? All of those things were answered for me because I had fallen in love with music.”
In March, a few weeks after his Symphony Hall appearance, Wilkins, who is a youthful 63, was promoted to a newly created position as the BSO’s artistic adviser for education and community engagement. Symphony Hall is now shuttered due to the pandemic, and Wilkins is entering his final year as music director of the Omaha Symphony, a post he has held since 2005. But when classical music’s public life eventually returns, Wilkins will be in Boston more often, continuing to lead the youth and family concerts while also deepening his connection with the orchestra and the city as a whole. To say the BSO is looking forward to having him around more often would be putting it too mildly.
“He’s magical,” said the BSO’s Leslie Wu Foley, director of education and community engagement. “That’s our joke in the department. In youth concerts with 2,000 highly energetic students in the hall, he has a way of making every single person feel seen and heard. I don’t know how he does it, but even when you’re in the second balcony, you feel like he’s talking to you. It’s that gift of connection and communication. He just inspired us on an all-staff Zoom call. How do you do that over Zoom?”
BSO piccolo player Cynthia Meyers first saw Wilkins at work when she was a member of the Houston Symphony. She recalls watching in awe as he took over an annual community concert series that had become sleepy and rudderless and turned it into a vibrant, standing room only affair. “He’s the real deal,” Meyers said. “A true educator, a true musician, someone who really sees his mission on the podium as spreading the gospel. And he can excite kids about music in a way that I’ve not really seen anybody else do, and I’ve been in this business for a long time.”
Wilkins’s appointment comes at a time of larger reckoning for the BSO and for the field as a whole, as orchestras, conservatories, and performing arts organizations — already scrambling to remain relevant and financially afloat during the pandemic — are now looking onto a cultural landscape quickly shifting in the wake of national protests following the killing of George Floyd. The BSO, like so many ensembles and corporate brands, has put out statements of solidarity with the newly amplified calls for racial justice. Across the industry, however, there will now be scrutiny of just how far beyond those words, ensembles — whose audiences are often much less diverse than the cities they serve — are willing to go in addressing issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion on a more profound and structural level. In a related development, hundreds of NEC alumni recently signed on to an open letter addressed to the president of the conservatory, Andrea Kalyn, calling for change and stating that NEC “has been implicated in reproducing the social conditions it claims to abhor.”
For his part, Wilkins acknowledges that caution is due. “Words that are not made manifest in action are only words, they’re just slogans,” he said. But the conductor also remains hopeful for what lies ahead in Boston. He describes the new position as “a marriage of all the things I’ve believed in — my role as a conductor in the community and the organization’s belief that it has to extend itself beyond giving concerts.” He added, “I’m at the stage of my life when I’m not trying to build a career or impress anyone. I just want to make music, and I want to get other people to fall in love with music. That’s what made me who I am. And if I thought that the BSO was not sincere in its efforts, I wouldn’t be here.”
Growing up in Norfolk, Va., Wilkins’s love for the art form began with a third-grade class trip to hear the Norfolk Symphony. He found himself transfixed by the man standing on the raised platform, so intimately involved in the creation of a sound world that seemed more than beautiful — it seemed to be addressing him personally. “This music knew me, and it was calling me by name,” he said. From that day on, his sights were set on becoming a conductor.
“My mother couldn’t afford music lessons,” he explained, “but thank God there was this thing called music education in the public schools.” After a robust start in the public system, Wilkins completed his training at Shenandoah Conservatory and later, New England Conservatory, where he studied conducting under Richard Pittman. In addition to his post in Omaha, he has held positions with the Detroit Symphony, the Florida Orchestra, and the Richmond Symphony. He also holds an endowed chair in orchestral conducting at Indiana University.
Wilkins is the first to concede it’s an unlikely trajectory — a fact he often uses to his own advantage in connecting with students. “I call it my street cred,” he said. “When a kid says, ‘You have no idea how tough my life is,' my answer is, ‘Wrong. I know exactly how tough your life is, because that’s how tough my life was.’ ”
In the field today, Wilkins is one of a very small cohort of prominent Black conductors, four of whom recently participated in a virtual roundtable convened by the Berlin-based conductor Roderick Cox. The event, streamed live on Facebook, touched on the unique challenges faced by conductors of color, including a perceived narrower window for error while coming up the ranks. “The wider world has less patience with mistakes from people who don’t look like what they expect in the first place,” said Michael Morgan, music director of the Oakland East Bay Symphony.
As part of the roundtable, Wilkins spoke of the problem of tokenism, telling a story of an unnamed major orchestra that kept calling him to lead so-called roots programs devoted to music by Black composers. “I gave them two of those concerts,” he explained. “But then I had to say, ‘You seem to only want me when you want somebody Black. Why don’t you call me when you want somebody good.’ ” He later added, “The problem I have with all African-American programs is: Why not make it part of the fabric of the season, part of the fabric of who you are? Inclusion can’t mean, ‘We have to let you in.’ It has to mean, ‘We are all in this together.’ ”
In his new role at the BSO, Wilkins will expand his presence in the Boston Public Schools, and will lead master classes with the students participating in a program called BEAM (Bridge to Equity and Achievement in Music) among other new responsibilities. He stresses how much of the work ahead has nothing to do with bringing people to the hall, but is rather about making sure they have a more basic level of access to the music. All of his efforts, he said, will flow from what he speaks of as a kind of basic ethical equation: “If we really believe that this music is as life-affirming and life-altering as we say it is, then it is our moral responsibility to do as much as we can to put it in as many hands — and as many ears — as we possibly can.”
How fully will Wilkins’s work here be supported, and how big will he be encouraged to think in the coming years? One hopes his appointment is a recognition that the orchestra must do more to deepen its connection to a wider portion of the city, to respond more fully to calls for diversifying its repertoire, and, fundamentally, to work toward redrawing the map of who has a stake in classical music as an art form. Increasingly, these have come to seem not just like ethical imperatives but existential ones for the future of symphony orchestras across the country.
If all of this sounds like a daunting task, it’s one Wilkins approaches with a kind of preternatural optimism that seems inseparable from his larger approach to music. “I recently told the BSO staff, ‘Yes these are heady times, but let’s not be afraid of them, afraid we’re going to ruin something about the past. Let’s be excited about the future.‘ ” He added, “Great journeys don’t happen in shallow water. So let’s get out into the deep.”
TANGLEWOOD FAMILY CONCERT WITH CIRCLE ROUND
With conductor Thomas Wilkins
July 28, 5 p.m., www.tanglewood.org