How a youth concert started conductor Thomas Wilkins on his career path

Thomas Wilkins

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 has served as music director of the Omaha (Neb.) Symphony Orchestra since 2005, and he was named principal guest conductor at the Hollywood Bowl in 2008 and principal conductor in 2014. Earlier this year, he also joined the faculty of Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music. “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.

For the first time, Wilkins will bring his extensive background in this realm to Symphony Center when he leads CSO Family concerts at 11 a.m. and 12:45 p.m. on Dec. 2. The CSO invited him a few times previously, but he could not fit the concerts into his schedule until now. “So it’s cool that I’m finally going to get to do one [set] there,” he said. It’s especially gratifying because he has a long history in Chicago, including his first job out of graduate school, teaching at North Park University.

The Dec. 2 program is titled “Friends in Harmony,” and it will explore how music can overcome differences and bring people together. “We used to always say that music is a universal language,” Wilkins said. “That has almost become a cliché, but one thing that is not a cliché is that there are characteristics in music and in the orchestra itself that are profound representations of what community looks like, and by extension, what community sounds like. The notion that none of the instruments in the orchestra sound like each other, but an orchestra of people has made a decision to work together in such a way that beauty gets to have the last word.”

Using the Farandole from Bizet’s L’arlésienne Suite No. 2, Wilkins shows how two melodies — two competing voices — can co-exist at the same time. For a lesson on the importance of listening, he uses the slow movement from Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. It opens with an oboe solo, which some other instruments support but most remain silent. “All of my programs are more about life and less about music,” Wilkins said. “I just use music as the tool, because I know it can take care of itself.”

Other works on the program include the Overture from Bernstein’s Candide, Hoe-down from Aaron Copland’s Rodeo and Malambo from Alberto Ginastera’s Estancia.

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, Va., 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], 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,” he said, “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.”

Along with his duties in Boston, he occasionally guest conducts family concerts, and he has made a point of leading one such program a year with the Omaha Symphony. 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.”