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DIVERSITY BOSTON

Raising the baton

The BSO’s first black conductor applies his passion to inspiring a new generation

Thomas Wilkins wants 'to broaden the ownership of classical music.' Thomas Wilkins wants "to broaden the ownership of classical music." (Boston Symphony Orchestra)
By Akilah Johnson
Globe Staff / December 4, 2011
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Standing in the Hayes School of Music’s auditorium in Roxbury, maestro Thomas Wilkins is having what he calls a poetic moment.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s youth and family concerts conductor is imparting life lessons and musical instruction to 250 middle-schoolers growing up in circumstances similar to his own and in the city where he received his formal maestro education. But during the conversation, Wilkins doesn’t talk much about his accomplishments, such as being the first African-American in the BSO’s 131-year history to hold a conducting position with the symphony.

Instead, he talks about hope. He talks about dreams. “Wishing without working only leads to disappointment,’’ he says. “I want you to know yourself. I want you to know what you’re built for.’’

Growing up in a housing project in Norfolk, Va., Wilkins picked his career when he was a third-grade student, awe-struck by the sound of “The Star Spangled Banner’’ performed in an orchestra’s voice.

“The fact that I actually work in that building now just blows my mind,’’ he says of Symphony Hall, a place he used to sneak into to listen to performances as a graduate student at the New England Conservatory of Music. He received his master of music degree in orchestral conducting from the conservatory in 1982.

Wilkins, who signed on with the BSO early this year, says Boston is a different city now. Then, it was a place where no one seemed to get along, he says. “It wasn’t just racial conflict,’’ the 55-year-old says. “It was almost as if no one liked anybody.’’ Nearly 30 years later, Wilkins uses words like progressive to describe what he calls “the most intellectual and sophisticated American city.’’

Still, he had reservations about returning, though they had little to do with Boston’s struggles to shake its lingering reputation as a place unfriendly to minorities and everything to do with fears of being pigeonholed. “What I didn’t want was to be known as the guy who does children’s concerts for a living,’’ he explains. “But the irony is: I love to do children’s concerts.’’

And true to form, when he steps before the students in the Hayes auditorium, Wilkins controls the energy in the room just as he would during a concert. The kinetic energy that comes from using students to help demonstrate what he does from the podium in front of a major orchestra sets the tempo. The audience laughs with abandon as his volunteers on stage try to mimic the arm movements Wilkins uses to control the music. (He was about their age when he conducted his first concert, he later says.)

Then, with his voice and his story, he lulls the crowd into a state of rapt attention as he tells them about moving from a mouse-infested house to the projects, which seemed like luxury living in comparison, and the school trip to the symphony where he fell in love with classical music.

“I believe this is God’s calling in my life,’’ says Wilkins, a married father of 19-year-old twin musicians. It is the only explanation he can offer for why a young black boy born to a single mother on welfare would fall in love with classical music and turn his passion into his profession. The choice, he says, helped him gracefully side-step the urban ills that befell many in his neighborhood.

Now that he’s one of the few African-American conductors leading a major orchestra, Wilkins, who is the music director of the Omaha Symphony and principal guest conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, wants to see the ranks of classical musicians grow more culturally diverse.

“I think that to a certain extent young people in general can be discouraged from participating in classical music because there are so many entertainment opportunities,’’ he says. “My view is to broaden the ownership of classical music for minorities so the pool gets larger.’’

But first and foremost, he says, a musician must be a servant to the music and the audience - and unafraid to chase his or her dreams. It’s a message Wilkins hopes bears fruit in this room full of students.

Akilah Johnson is a Boston Globe reporter. She can be reached at ajohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson1922.

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