Wilkins Takes Eight 

Former Richmond Symphony conductor returns to his Virginia roots.

Today, at 47, he’s the resident conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and a guest with orchestras across the country. This week he’s back in Richmond, where he served as associate conductor of the Richmond Symphony for five years. He’ll lead the orchestra Saturday and Monday in a program called “Take Eight” that includes eighth symphonies by Beethoven and Haydn, plus Copland’s Clarinet Concerto and Antheil’s “A Jazz Symphony.” Style Weekly caught up with him between errands in Detroit with his wife and twin 11-year-old daughters.

Style: What’s your schedule been like in the past week?

Wilkins: I had four rehearsals in Columbus, Ohio, and three concerts. A rehearsal and a concert in Philadelphia, and a rehearsal and a concert in Detroit. I’m not complaining, though, because I could be saying, “Would you like fries with that?” for a living. But at the end of the week I said, “I am spent. I am done.”

What was it like conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra?

It was my second time. The first was when I was there in November, but it wasn’t really a real concert, it was an annual thing they participate in with the Marian Anderson Foundation. It was a ceremony honoring Oprah Winfrey.

We did [American composer] Michael Torke’s “Javelin” and [African-American composer] George Walker’s Lyric for Strings. Katherine Battle sang “Let the Bright Seraphim” and “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.” Then Quincy Jones came out and did some stuff from “The Color Purple,” and Lionel Ritchie came out. It was a fun night. Backstage it was crazy, obviously.

The second time, the concert was fabulous. The orchestra played really well. They played really well for me. They were very complimentary and anxious to have me back. It was just a huge blessing to come in and have it be so successful. Great orchestras bring so much to the table in they way they rehearse that you have to have thought deeper about the music.

How have you changed as a musician since you left Richmond in 1994?

Obviously I’ve gotten older, and that always helps a musician if the musician is an eternal learner, an eternal student. I think that when you add years more maturity to that, the result for me has been I make music at a much deeper emotional and spiritual level than I did before.

When I watch great conductors, what makes them great is simply the fact that they have pondered and considered and probably made a decision about every aspect of the work. I’m not a great conductor, but I’m a darn good conductor.

You fell in love with classical music as a child. How do you foster that interest in kids today?

My philosophy has never changed about how to get kids involved in music, especially the ones playing music. My angle starts with passion — not with technique, not with how music is constructed, not history. If I can get kids to feel passionate about music, they’ll go to the practice room.

In Philadelphia, I worked with a 200-voice chorus and 90 percent of them were inner-city high school students. It was multiethnic, multigenerational. They sang the “Hallelujah” from “Christ on the Mount of Olives” by Beethoven. Those kids were pumped about Beethoven. We’re talking about high school kids in the inner city of Philly pumped about Beethoven! Talk about the power of music.

Has there been a change in the climate for black classical musicians?

There has been for this one, that’s for sure. Opportunities have increased, but that had nothing to do with the fact I’m black. It’s less of a surprise these days that it’s a career option for someone who looks like me.

I’m a realist. I know there are places I might go where for one reason or another the administration does not think they’re ready for an African-American music director. In other places, it doesn’t even enter into their minds that they’re about to hire someone who isn’t Western European. I can’t tell you how many good-to-really-good orchestras I conduct where the players come up to me and say, “Where have you been all my life” — musically speaking.

You conducted in Tampa for eight seasons after leaving Richmond. Are you still a rabid Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan?

You know what? I wouldn’t call it rabid anymore because [former coach] Tony Dungy isn’t there, but I was proud when they won the Super Bowl. I’ve still got a Tampa Bay license plate on the front of my car, just because I can’t bring myself to put a Detroit Lions plate on my car. I’m really hoping Dungy can [win the Super Bowl] with the Colts. ... I think they can do it because [quarterback] Peyton Manning is playing out of his mind.

When I don’t have a team in a game, I root for the team whose town has the better-supported orchestra. If it’s a city where I’ve conducted versus a city I haven’t conducted in, I root for the city I’ve conducted in. S

Thomas Wilkins conducts the Richmond Symphony Saturday, Jan. 24, at the Carpenter Center and Monday, Jan. 26, at St. Michael’s Catholic Church, both concerts at 8 p.m. Tickets for Saturday’s performance cost $25-$65 and are available through Ticketmaster (262-8003, ticketmaster.com) and Monday’s performance costs $40 and can be purchased through the Symphony box office, 788-1212.


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