Symphony Hall rehearsals don’t usually include a laying on of hands, but that’s what happened when conductor Thomas Wilkins waded into the orchestra to save the opening bars of Edvard Grieg’s “Peer Gynt.”
“Everyone here is on your side,” the conductor said, calmly placing his palms on the heads of two flutists who’d tackled the bucolic passage. “You have to say to [the audience]: There are these things called trees, and cows, and stuff. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen, but your soul will recognize it.”
Wilkins’s method at the Wednesday night rehearsal may have been unorthodox, but so was his orchestra: 100 or so eager amateur musicians from around Massachusetts, chosen by lottery to take part in “Onstage at Symphony.” The four-day program culminates with a free performance this Saturday at Symphony Hall.
“It’s like playing a softball game at Fenway Park,” said Elliot Pittel, a child psychiatrist and trumpeter from Newton. “Being exposed to how the Boston Symphony Orchestra plays and getting a little glimpse of how things work — it’s like fantasy camp for musicians.”
Ages 21 to 76, the players range widely in technique, talent, and experience. Some, like Somerville violin teacher Masami Rodriguez, are conservatory-trained musicians who have played since childhood, while others, such as Pittel, took decades off from their instrument to pursue a career. They’ve never played together before. But they’re all in the same boat: After three rehearsals, they’re on. No pressure.
Or at least not for Wilkins, who launched the program in 2015 and uses humor, respect, and a little tough love to shape their raw potential into a coherent musical whole.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a group of amateurs or the Boston Symphony Orchestra — people want to be a part of something that’s bigger than they are,” said Wilkins, who serves as the BSO’s youth and family concerts conductor. “The only difference is that I have to give them more information. I have to use more words and gestures than I do with professional orchestras.”
Indeed. During the orchestra’s inaugural rehearsal Wednesday night, Wilkins seemed to stir the air with his baton. He stomped time on the podium, clapped to move the musicians along, and at one point gripped the baton in his teeth, later growling, “this is not cute music.”
“I’m going to be like my wife to my daughters — you’re not getting away with that,” he told the violins after a particularly sluggish passage. He later admonished: “That’s chump change for a pizzicato.”
There were plenty of honks, squeaks, scratches, and squawks, but the orchestra never lost the thread of the melody.
“If we leave learning anything tonight, it’s that this is a human endeavor, not a counting endeavor,” Wilkins said, later spreading his arms as though he were soaring on the music. “I want you to leave tonight elevated, thinking: Maybe I don’t need that conductor after all.”
For Sarah Brockmann, an Episcopal priest and double bass player from Scituate, it all went startlingly well.
“It sounds amazing,” she said. “I’m surprised it’s as good as it is right out of the gate, but you’ve got to at least have some self-confidence to put your name in the hat to begin with.”
She said nothing could compare to her shock at being invited to play Symphony Hall. “I keep telling people this wasn’t even on my bucket list, because why would this be on my bucket list? Because, seriously.”
Casey Golomski, an anthropologist from Boston who plays the French horn in a couple of local orchestras, likened the experience to a “crash course.”
“I don’t think this type of program attracts passionless people,” he said, allowing that he was made nervous by “the immensity of the space itself, and being made to feel very small in the hall of greatness. I think I’m just going to soak it all in and relish it.”
Wilkins said it was important that the repertoire be challenging to the musicians — playable, but not dumbed-down or oversimplified.
“It may not be Mahler’s Seventh, but it’s still substantial repertoire,” he said. “You have to choose music that can speak to the human condition.”
Still, with so many levels of training, couldn’t this whole thing go drastically wrong?
“Never,” said Wilkins, adding that he had to “find some wood really quick — to knock on.”
He said that as amateur musicians, each player has a keen sense of what musical excellence sounds like.
“They are willing to strive to be at least a small part of it,” he said. “You have to realize that the music will always be greater than us, and we will never really measure up. But it’s in the trying to measure up that we become artists.”
All philosophizing aside, Wilkins seemed aware that the two flutists seemed unconvinced after he told them to evoke the morning countryside, and returned to his podium.
“Yeah, buddy,” he said. “You can rub my head all you want, but I still have to play this stuff. So quit it with the cows.”