Thomas Wilkins recalls how a youth concert sparked his podium career

Thomas Wilkins, principal conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, makes his debut on the CSO Main series this month.

Los Angeles Philharmonic

When the Boston Symphony Orchestra offered Thomas Wilkins the position of youth and family concerts conductor, he hesitated. “I thought, ‘I don’t want be known as the guy who does kiddie concerts for a living,’” he recalled.

But his wife wisely pointed out that Leonard Bernstein made a living in part doing just such “kiddie concerts,” and it certainly didn’t hurt his career. His televised Young People’s Concerts in 1958-72 with the New York Philharmonic set the standard of how to introduce classical music to children in an intelligent yet compelling way. At the same time, Bernstein managed to become the second greatest conductor of all time, according to a 2011 poll of 100 top maestros by the BBC Music Magazine.

“Oh, yeah, that’s right,” Wilkins remembers saying. Plus, as his wife pointed out, how could he become pigeonholed, given he has such a diverse career? The maestro served as music director of the Omaha (Neb.) Symphony Orchestra from 2005 to 2021, and he was named principal guest conductor at the Hollywood Bowl in 2008 and principal conductor in 2014. He’s also on the faculty of Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, where he holds Henry A. Upper Chair of Orchestral Conducting. “This is just going to look like versatility,” he remembers them telling him. “This doesn’t look like anything other than that. And it’s the Boston Symphony Orchestra, for crying out loud.”

So he accepted the position and began his duties in 2011. The post gives him some of the most fun of anything he does all year long. His current title in Boston is artistic adviser for education and community engagement.

After leading Civic Orchestra and CSO for Kids programs in recent seasons, Wilkins makes his debut as a guest conductor with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in concerts March 23 and March 25-26, in an Americana-themed lineup of Coleridge Taylor’s Hiawatha Suite, Copland’s Clarinet Concerto and Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 (From the New World). Before the March 23 concert, Wilkins appear in a preconcert Q&A, as part of a College Night event, in Grainger Ballroom. After the March 26 matinee, Wilkins will join a panel discussion, hosted by the CSO’s African American Network in Grainger Ballroom.

Later this spring, he also will return to lead the Civic Orchestra on June 5, and next season he will be on the podium for Merry, Merry Chicago!, the CSO’s annual holiday revue.

In 2017-2018, Wilkins made his Symphony Center debut on the CSO for Kids series. The CSO had invited him a few times previously, but he could not fit the concerts into his schedule. The milestone was especially gratifying because he has a long history in Chicago, including his first job out of graduate school, teaching at North Park University.

Despite his initial reluctance to take the Boston job, Wilkins is a big fan of family and school concerts. When he was 8, he attended just such a program in his native Norfolk, Virginia, and it put him on the life path he has followed since. “I was a poor kid — single mother, welfare, living in a housing project,” he said. “I went to hear the Norfolk Symphony Orchestra [now the Virginia Symphony Orchestra, where he’s now principal guest conductor], and my life was changed. All those critical choices that a kid has to make, especially when you are growing up in the ’hood: Do I go to college? What is the quality of my friends? What do I do when there is no adult supervision? [All of them] were answered for me because I had fallen in love with music.”

Because of what it did for him, the conductor is confident such a concert can have a life-altering impact on other children, even if they don’t turn to music as a career.

Wilkins gained his experience with youth concerts while serving as assistant director of the Richmond (Va.) Symphony Orchestra and resident conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Florida Orchestra in St. Petersburg. “I discovered early on that I was really good at it, probably because I had a heart for it. And I’m a pretty good communicator with people of all ages, so I just developed this great love for it.”

No matter where he is, he never tires of watching children and parents fall in love with classical music and the symphony orchestra. “For me,” he said, “it’s just the coolest thing in the world.”

A version of this article previously appeared on Experience CSO.