Wilkins, Thomas Alphonso
Thomas Alphonso Wilkins
Conductor Thomas Wilkins became music director of the Omaha Symphony in 2005, making him one of just a handful of African Americans conducting a major orchestra in the United States. Known for his commitment to music education and mentoring programs as well as a sharp wit, Wilkins is sometimes asked if he has ever broken his baton in the middle of a performance. He admitted to a writer in the Tampa Tribune that he once split one in half on his podium during "the last chord of the first movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 1. It went straight up in the air. I and about 1,200 other people watched as it took about eight minutes to make it back to the ground."
Wilkins was born in 1956 in Norfolk, Virginia, where he was raised by a single mother in the Young Park public housing projects. He attended the nearby Young Park Elementary School, which served the predominantly black community, and settled upon his chosen career during a school field trip in the third grade. His class went to the Norfolk Arena Theater to see a special performance of the Norfolk Symphony Orchestra, and it was Wilkins's first encounter with any kind of live music. "When I saw the conductor as opposed to the other people in the orchestra, he seemed to be the person that was shaping and playing and being surrounded by all that sound," he recalled in an interview with Cathy Gant Hill in the News & Record. "And that was where I wanted to be…I went home and took my toy soldiers out and arranged them all in orchestra seating."
Wilkins began playing violin in the school orchestra in fourth grade. In high school he played cello in the orchestra and tuba in the marching band. Growing up during the late 1960s and early 1970s in a rapidly disintegrating urban environment, Wilkins stayed on a narrowly focused path. "I look at music as the thing that probably saved my life," he asserted in an interview on LAist.com. "In poverty in an inner-city neighborhood, you are not overrun with positive choices. Because I had chosen music a lot of my critical life questions were answered: who I would hang out with, whether or not I would go to college, what do I do with my spare time."
Wilkins earned a bachelor's degree in music education from Shenandoah Conservatory of Music in Winchester, Virginia, in 1978, and went on to the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, which granted him a master of music degree in orchestral conducting in 1982. By this point Wilkins had some teaching and conducting experience on his résumé, including a stint at the Busch Gardens theme park in Williamsburg, Virginia, where he conducted six performances every day, six days per week. That experience instilled in him a deep work ethic, he told LAist.com. "One of the things that was impressed upon us as young musicians in ‘show business’ is that when you get to the sixth show on the sixth day, it is still the first show for the people in the audience. They deserve the same enthusiasm, energy, and passion that you gave to the first show on the first day."
Wilkins taught at North Park College in the Chicago area and at the Chattanooga campus of the University of Tennessee in the 1980s. He began conducting in earnest with Virginia's Richmond Symphony orchestra in the early 1990s and by 1995 was serving as resident conductor of the Florida Orchestra in Tampa under Indonesian-born music director Jahja Ling. He held that post for nearly a decade, while also taking a resident conductor job with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in 2000. For two years he divided his time between Tampa and Detroit, but left the Tampa Bay area in 2002 to devote his energies to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. In 2005 he became music director of the Omaha Symphony, which was his first full-time assignment as principal conductor. The post gave him much greater authority in choosing the season's program, he explained to John Fleming in the St. Petersburg Times. "If I run across a young emerging artist or composer, I don't have to clear it with anyone now to get that person heard. That part of it is very exciting."
Wilkins commuted between Detroit and Omaha for a time, but moved his family to Nebraska in 2007 once his contract was renewed until 2012. He has twin daughters who were teenagers by that point, and not surprisingly were talented musicians in their own right. Recognizing the role his earliest mentors played in his own career, Wilkins has consistently returned the favor. He teaches at Shenandoah Conservatory's performing-arts camp every summer, and has been a vital part of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's pioneering Classical Roots program, which nurtures the careers of up-and-coming African-American composers, some of them still in college.
Journalists sometimes ask Wilkins about the relevance of classical music in the twenty-first century, and he admits that outreach programs are vital. "If I didn't believe that, it would be time to do something else," he told Ashley Hassebroek in the Omaha World-Herald. "It's hard for me to be an orchestra evangelist and not believe there are potential flocks out there. We keep talking about the graying of symphony audiences. Guess what? People continue to gray. We're not just one thing—we're many different things. That's why we have to be more aware that we are a versatile instrument and we should pursue that versatility."
At a Glance …
Born on September 10, 1956 in Norfolk, VA; son of Wallace Y. Wilkins Sr.; married Sheri-Lee (a physical therapist), June 14, 1985; children: Erica, Nicole. Education: Shenandoah Conservatory of Music, BME 1978; New England Conservatory of Music, MM 1982.
Career: Shenandoah Conservatory Symphony, assistant conductor, 1976-78; Busch Entertainment Corporation, music director, 1981-82; New England Conservatory Repertory Orchestra, assistant conductor, 1981-82; Northwest Indiana Youth Orchestra, assistant conductor, conductor, 1983; North Park College Orchestra, music director; University of Tennessee—Chattanooga, director orchestral studies, 1987-89; has also taught at North Park University and Virginia Commonwealth University; Richmond Symphony, associate conductor; Florida Orchestra, resident conductor, c. 1994-02; Detroit Symphony Orchestra, resident conductor, 2000—; Omaha Symphony, music director, 2005—; Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, principal guest conductor, 2008—.
Memberships: Raymond James Charitable Fund, board chair.
Awards: Classical Roots Musical Achievement Award, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, 2007.
Addresses: Home—Omaha, NE. Office—Omaha Symphony, 1605 Howard St., Omaha, NE 68102-2705.
Wilkins is also a popular guest conductor elsewhere, and in 2008 became principal guest conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra in Los Angeles. In his spare time, he is an avid golfer and professes a love of such old television shows as Star Trek, The Flintstones, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. His favorite pop music is the work of singer-songwriter James Taylor. Asked if he could provide any advice to youth who hoped for a career in the performing arts, he reiterated on LAist.com what he often told young people. "The first is to understand that their biggest competition is ignorance, not the person sitting next to them. That is something I actually borrowed from Wynton Marsalis many years ago. It stuck with me. The second piece of advice is to understand that if you wake up in the morning intent on doing battle with your biggest competitor, you always end up learning something by the end of the day."
Detroit Free Press, February 5, 2003.
News & Record (Piedmont Triad, NC), November 14, 2002, p. 6.
Omaha World-Herald, June 10, 2007.
St. Petersburg Times (St. Petersburg, FL), March 23, 2008, p. 2E.
Tampa Tribune, November 2, 1998, p. 1.
"LAist Interview: Thomas Wilkins, Principal Guest Conductor of the Hollywood Bowl," LAist.com, June 18, 2008, http://laist.com/2008/06/18/laist_interview_thomas_wilkin_princ.php (accessed October 28, 2008).
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