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Lifting the baton to bring composers of color into the canon

BSO youth and family concerts conductor Thomas Wilkins makes his subscription-series debut at Symphony Hall on Saturday.John Blanding/Globe Staff/file 2017/Globe Staff

There was a joke that, earlier in his career, Thomas Wilkins and his fellow black conductors would share knowingly. “The joke was: We were always really busy in February,” he said by phone during a recent interview. February, of course, is Black History Month, during which “orchestras wanted repertoire by African-American composers,” usually conducted by African-Americans.

This offended some of Wilkins’s colleagues, who felt that “there was a sense of tokenism” to these engagements, but he always took a different approach. Practically speaking, it was a gig. And, he added, “I can’t control what’s in someone else’s heart as to why they make the decisions that they make. So if you hire me because I’m black, that’s on you, not on me. But the next time you hire me, it’s because I’m good.”


This topic came up as Wilkins was discussing the music of Adolphus Hailstork, a contemporary African-American composer whose vibrant “An American Port of Call” is on a March 23 Boston Symphony Orchestra program with which Wilkins, who has been the BSO’s youth and family concerts conductor since 2011, will make his BSO subscription-series debut. During the time when he was looking for repertoire to conduct at those February concerts, he discovered Hailstork’s music, and has now conducted virtually all of it.

“What I loved about his music is that it’s always extremely well crafted,” Wilkins said. “He can write in a European tradition, but he never loses his heritage when he writes.” That quality — what Wilkins calls “being comfortable in one’s own skin” — links the music of the four composers on the BSO program: Hailstork, Duke Ellington, Florence Price (all African-Americans), and Roberto Sierra, who is Puerto Rican.

“A lot of composers understood that if their music was going to have wide appeal, probably some of it was going to have to come from music of the ‘common person,’ ” Wilkins explained. “That’s what this program is, except that we have less often focused on Americanism’s original voice in classical music. If you think about someone like Samuel Barber — he was an American composer who wrote in a Western European voice. And that’s not the case with Florence Price or Duke Ellington. I think that’s the major difference.”


Both Ellington’s “A Tone Parallel to Harlem (Harlem Suite)” and Sierra’s Concerto for Saxophones and Orchestra create distinctive interfaces between jazz and orchestral music. But it is Price’s appearance on the program that is of particular interest, given the surge of attention her music has gotten over the past year or so, which includes recordings of her symphonies and violin concertos. She was the first black woman to have a piece performed by a major American orchestra (the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, in 1933). When Wilkins leads “Symphonic Reflections” — a shortened version of her Third Symphony— it will be the first time the BSO has played her music. (The same is true of Hailstork.)

“I think the tenacity of her production as a composer matches the tenacity of her as a black woman growing up pre-Jim Crow,” said Wilkins. “There is nothing about her as a composer that was intimidated by the task or by the obstacles in front of her. That is a part of her humanity, and that is as much a part of the story as anything else. And her music is just a manifestation of that inner self: ‘Nothing in the world is going to separate me from my dream.’ And that’s the hallmark of those people on whose backs we all ride.”


Of course, the other thing that connects the four composers on the BSO program is that they come from backgrounds and ethnicities that have struggled for representation in the largely white (and largely male) world of classical composition. At many institutions, demands have grown louder that composers who have hitherto been at the margins of this canon be heard more frequently. The BSO is no exception: In December 2017, a group of more than 60 local musicians wrote an open letter to the orchestra, urging that it diversify its programming and pointing out that 72 out of the 73 pieces to be played at Symphony Hall that season had been composed by white men.

Against that backdrop, Wilkins said, “I think it’s fair to say that with this concert the BSO said, wait a minute: We have a conductor we know, and that we respect, who knows this repertoire. He’s a family member. Let’s use this as the launching point to move forward.”

Yet he also understands why people might be skeptical that this program represents any kind of revolution in the orchestra’s programming. It’s just one program, and it’s only a single concert. (Most of the BSO’s Symphony Hall programs are performed three or four times.) Perhaps there’s an appearance of something similar to the tokenism that Wilkins’s colleagues so resented when they were asked to conduct in February.


Wilkins acknowledged this. “This looks like, let’s just check this box and go on to the other stuff we normally do,” he said. “The easy observation would be to say that this is just a night of box-checking so that we can move on.”

But, he continued with some emphasis, “in reality, it is not. It is, in fact, a launch. And to be fair to the BSO, since my being there, we have been talking about this intensely [for] at least the last four years.”

He mentioned that he’s already had discussions with the orchestra about another such program in the future. “I know that it’s not a one-off-er for them. And you know what? You gotta start somewhere.”

His goal, he added, isn’t to create more single programs like this one, but rather “to incorporate this music into the canon. Because if we don’t, then the repertoire shrinks, and we’re going to be doing [the same] stuff over and over and over.”

Boston Symphony Orchestra

At Symphony Hall, March 23,
8 p.m. Tickets $38-½123 888-266-1200, www.bso.org

David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.