May 20, 2024
Florida Icon: Thomas Wilkins

Photo: Farah Sosa/Courtesy of Los Angeles Philharmonic Association

"I value musicians first as human beings. After that, we can start to work together as artists," says Thomas Wilkins, former resident conductor of The Florida Orchestra and principal conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra.


Florida Icon: Thomas Wilkins

Former resident conductor of The Florida Orchestra, principal conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and music director laureate of the Omaha Symphony, St. Petersburg; age 67

Kurt Loft | 4/11/2024

My mother was a single parent, but a very grown-up woman, and there were certain things she demanded of me: good behavior, clean clothes to wear to school, obey my teachers and be a good citizen in the neighborhood. She created disciplines and an inner personal structure that were an important part of my beginning.

I remember the day she told me that I was finally old enough to walk downtown to the library by myself. It was such a seminal moment in my life because that’s where the classical music was. So, on my own, I went up to the library’s music department and pulled albums off the shelf.

When I was 8 years old, I decided I wanted to be a conductor. I heard the Norfolk Symphony, and I was mesmerized by that man standing on the podium. He was emotionally and physically engaged, and I knew that’s where I wanted to be.

Music came easy to me. In junior high school I played cello in the orchestra and tuba in the band. I wanted to be in the band because of the uniforms; I thought they were cool and kind of a chick magnet.

Every day in band rehearsal I got to conduct. It’s a craft, and I appreciated the fact that I got the chance early on to stand in front of musicians and encourage them to make sound. That led me to understand what leadership is all about.

What I do on the podium is less about instruction and more about invitation. I’m asking musicians to come to a world, a realm, that’s greater than all of us, and when that happens it’s easier to say, ‘Please do it this way.’

My new role is to go around the country and remind players of what it felt like when they fi rst fell in love with music.

You have to be organized to spend this much time on the road. When I’m done with this interview, I’m going to the grocery store to get some meals and then sit down and study scores I’ll conduct next week.

I have a separate part of the closet at home that has all my concert gear, toiletries and what goes in my rehearsal bag for each concert. It all goes into a kit, so when I pack, I’ll pull the kits off the shelf and count the number of performances so I don’t have to worry about toothpaste or shirts.

I don’t conduct in tuxedos anymore. I have concert clothes made for me, and they’re very comfortable.

The greatest joy is what I’m able to foster with an orchestra every week and to make the musicians feel good about themselves. I make it a habit of learning everyone’s name before the first rehearsals, and that takes them completely off guard.

A life in classical music reminds me that I play an important role in nurturing not just artists but society. This is not a career — it’s a calling. It’s not about me at all; I’m just a vehicle to get this music out to people and to make their lives better.

My mantra is I want the best from the most and the most from the least.

We are, as a human society, really good at finding ways to divide ourselves and cling to our natural tribal tendencies and prejudices. And yet in the presence of beauty, we are faced with and quite simply forced to come to grips with our humility.

During COVID, orchestras had to figure out how to adapt. And in doing so, they figured out how important what we do really is, and how precious live music really is.

I don’t have a photographic memory, so I use a score when I conduct. But I rarely look at it.

Clarity is important in baton technique, but beating is not always important. The better the orchestra the less they need me to beat time.

An orchestra is a flawed business model. We couldn’t possibly charge an audience what it costs to put that orchestra on stage from a salary standpoint, and our product vanishes the moment we make it.

Golf is a huge passion but so is cooking, especially for other people.

Everyone in my family is a musician. My wife is a terrific pianist, and my daughter Erica plays the flute, and my daughter Nicole plays the harp, which is very cool since they’re twins. This provided a great opportunity for my wife and me to teach them what it meant to be servants to and with music.

On my iPod, I have Gustav Mahler, Duke Ellington, Jacob Collier, Pink Martini, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Lyle Lovett. It’s all over the map.

My last-ever program? It would include Mahler’s First Symphony, as it’s my all-time favorite piece of music. There’s something about every single moment of that music that knows me at the core of my being. This is the sum total of the indelible human spirit.

Tags: Florida Icon, Feature

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