Thomas Wilkins delighted to salute the season with Merry, Merry Chicago!

Thomas Wilkins leads the CSO in concerts earlier this year. He returns in December for Merry, Merry Chicago!

Todd Rosenberg Photography

When the New York Philharmonic put together the line-up for the 100th anniversary season of its celebrated Young People’s Concerts in 2023-24, it was fitting that conductor Thomas Wilkins was among the participants. He led the opening installment on Nov. 18 that carried the title of “Time Capsule” and looked back at the history of the series.

Such programs have been a central focus of his career, including his role since 2011 as the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s youth and family concerts conductor. “I love doing children’s concerts and was pretty well known for doing them,” Wilkins said. “They just thought that when they celebrated the centennial that I should be the person to do it, which was an incredible honor.”

Wilkins has made several appearances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, leading his first set of family concerts with the CSO in 2017 and making his subscription series debut with the ensemble in March 2023.

He returns Dec. 15-23 in a slightly different capacity, conducting Merry, Merry Chicago!, the CSO’s annual holiday program. Vocalist Ashley Brown, who originated the title role of Mary Poppins on Broadway, serves as soloist for this latest installment of the festive, family-friendly event. Featured will be such yuletide favorites as “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Joy to the World” and “The Polar Express” Suite.  

Wilkins has conducted countless holiday programs in his career, but not so many in recent years. “I like having the month of December off,” he said. “Especially because I live in Florida, and it’s good golfing weather.”

But he made an exception in the CSO’s case, in part because of his growing history with the ensemble and because of his ties to the city. His first job out of graduate school was teaching at what is now North Park University in Chicago, and it was there that he met his wife.

Holiday concerts are more informal than the CSO’s subscription concerts and require a light touch and a little showmanship, qualities that Wilkins embraces.

“I’m pretty comfortable talking to audiences,” he said. “I can be funny or I can be professorial or I can be anecdotal. So there is a constant communication with the audience. It is light-hearted and it might be poignant at one point when I’m wishing them a wonderful holiday season. It’s very relaxed.”

The other challenge with Merry, Merry Chicago! is investing all six performances with the same amount of energy and brio. Wilkins mastered such consistency while performing tuba in a German oompah band at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Virginia, when he was in college.

“One of the things we learned is that you have to be as on for the sixth show of the day as you were for the first show of the day, because it’s a different audience,” Wilkins said. “And they deserve the same energy that the first audience got.”

In addition to his post at the Boston Symphony, Wilkins took over as principal guest conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra in 2008 and was named principal conductor in 2014. He also serves as chair of orchestral conducting and professor of music at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music.

In 2021, he stepped down as music director of Nebraska’s Omaha Symphony Orchestra after 16 seasons, staying through ensemble’s 100th anniversary and becoming the longest-serving such artistic leader in its history. “That was a wonderful time,” he said.

Wherever he goes, he carries forth his mission of using music as a unifying force. "Music and beauty are the things that show us there are more things about us that are alike than what we look like,” he said. “In the presence of beauty, we are all made more humble.

“If we really believe in the transformative power of music, then those of us who have it in our hands are under a moral obligation to make sure that no one is left behind.”