By Darlene Donloe
Most little boys dream of being a fireman, a policeman, an astronaut or Power Ranger when they grow up.
Not Thomas Wilkins. After hearing a symphony on an outing with his third-grade class, the 8-year-old decided he wanted to be an orchestra conductor.
“I saw this man who was waving his arms, surrounded by all this great music,” Wilkins said. “There was something about it.”
It would be a serendipitous, but life-changing moment for Wilkins, who has conducted many of the world’s leading orchestras including the famed Hollywood Bowl Orchestra where he was named principal guest conductor in 2008. He has been the orchestra’s principal conductor since 2014.
Now he’s the man looking debonair in his tuxedo and waving his arms in the air — seemingly drawing shapes as he guides musicians through the music.
One of the industry’s most celebrated conductors, Wilkins, 65, is one of only a handful of Black conductors.
Throughout history there has been Joseph Boulogne, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Rudolph Dunbar, William Grant Still, Calvin E. Simmons and more. Today, some on the shortlist include Kwame Ryan, Jeri Lynne Johnson, Kevin John Edusei and Kalena Bovell.
The highly sought-after Wilkins has successfully crisscrossed the country with his talents.
From his prestigious podium, he has led orchestras throughout the United States, including the New York and Los Angeles Philharmonics, the Philadelphia and Cleveland Orchestras, and the symphonies of Chicago, Boston, Cincinnati, Detroit, and the National Symphony, among others.
A true music connoisseur, Wilkins’ interest isn’t solely entrenched in the classics. He has taken the stage with everyone from Earth, Wind & Fire to Randy Newman, and most recently conducted a host of musicians who were participating in the Hollywood Black Movie Soundtrack at the Hollywood Bowl on Aug. 24.
A native of Norfolk, Virginia, Wilkins, a married (Sheri-Lee), father of twin daughters (Erica and Nicole), is a graduate of the Shenandoah Conservatory of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.
A tall, ruggedly handsome and elegant man, Wilkins, now in his 13th season at The Bowl, has a calming spirit. He’s highly intelligent and vastly intentional.
I recently caught up with Wilkins to talk about how he’s living his best life.
DD: What happened to you when you were 8 years old and heard the symphony?
TW: I don’t know. I didn’t have words for it at the time. I knew I was happy at that moment. It felt right and felt happy. I started conducting in the seventh grade when the orchestra teacher asked for volunteers. I’ve been waving my arms since seventh grade. Being a conductor sounds fancy. I did it through junior high, high school and undergrad.
DD: What is it like to conduct the iconic Hollywood Bowl Orchestra?
TW: It’s the most fun I have had all year. Our mantra is that you can go to a concert anywhere. But we want your experience to be something you don’t want to miss. We want to make sure the patrons have the time of their lives. The orchestra is amazing. They can play anything. We can do Stravinsky, Stevie Wonder, John Legend, and Earth, Wind, and Fire.
DD: Describe what it’s like when you conduct.
TW: It’s a combination. When we learn music we have to have a healthy balance between emotion and intellect. You’re balancing existing in the substance of the music, so you can communicate the essence of the music. That’s what changes people’s lives. Make sure your Is are dotted and Ts are crossed. When you get to the performance, you are communicating the beauty of what you’re doing. Sometimes you’re a psychologist on the podium, sometimes a helper. It’s about control and when to exercise it and when to relinquish it.
DD: At 8, you were mesmerized by the man waving his arms. What are you doing when you’re waving your arms?
TW: Sometimes it’s specific. Breathe here, play there. Then I’m’ saying, it’s this loud, it’s this soft. Some of that is technical. The better the orchestra, the less of that they need. Our primary job is to figure out what the composer is trying to communicate to the listener.
DD: Talk about your responsibilities as the principal conductor.
TW: The leading of performances is primary. Also, the acquisition of musicians for the orchestra and being a team member in the programming of the show. I’m the artistic steward of the institution.
DD: What makes a good conductor?
TW: They must have a healthy respect for humanity, challenges, fears and triumphs.
DD: Are the best conductors born or taught?
TW: They can be both born and taught. The taught part means they have to be teachable. If you want to be the center of attention, you shouldn’t be a conductor. You have to have a curiosity to learn and deep respect for human beings. You can’t be the most important person in the room. They are sitting in the audience.
DD: How did your interest in music begin?
TW: Music is about life. If you don’t live life, you can’t make music. My home was filled with Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye and The Mighty Clouds of Joy. Nothing that resembled Mozart. That speaks to the power of music. Black folks get access to classical music. We have been in classical music since the 1700s.
DD: What was it like growing up?
TW: I grew up in the projects and was raised by a single mother. I had two brothers. We shared the same father. I have a sister. We share the same mother. I ran track and hung out with my buddies. I hung out with musicians and athletes. I hung out with people who were interested in learning and getting out of the projects. I know what heartaches and struggles and joy are.
DD: When you were growing up, did you understand that you weren’t privileged?
TW: Good question. Poor kids don’t know they are poor. I knew there was a world that was different. There was a world out there. It fueled my drive.
DD: Did you know your father?
TW: Yes, he was a laborer for a lot of his life. He parked airplanes for a living. I joke maybe that’s where I got my conducting from. My stepmother was the one person who understood what I was doing. My father didn’t understand.
DD: Are you mentoring any Black folks?
TW: The short answer is yes. There are a lot of young Black conductors who see me and understand this is a possibility for their lives. It’s not a burden. There is a responsibility. I get emails and texts from a lot of young conductors seeking advice on how to proceed and behave on the podium. I always answer. I’m in the process of creating a fellowship for African-American conductors. That’s a dream of mine.
DD: Are there a lot of Black conductors in the U.S.?
TW: No. There are more than there were 20 years ago, but by comparison, probably not.
TW: I don’t know that I have an answer. Lack of opportunity or lack of thinking it’s something they can do. Maybe they don’t think they could.
DD: What is it about music? What does it do for you?
TW: I tell students to love every note. I’m happier now than I was 40 years ago. Music plays a more significant role in personal and cultural healing. Now I see it as therapeutic and rejuvenating as it is entertaining. It’s enlightenment as much as it is entertaining.
DD: What kind of music do you listen to when you’re at home or in your car?
TW: James Taylor is my all-time favorite artist. I listen to Andraé Crouch, Cyrine, Fernando Ortega, Kay Rankin and Nancy Wilson. I listen to everything. Every musician should listen to everything.
DD: What do you know for sure?
TW: That everything I have was given to me by God. I know therefore it’s my responsibility to honor Him with the work I do and the people I love. I know music gives me purpose, also pause. It continues to bring me joy. I’m living my life’s dream and life’s call.
“The Q&A” is a feature of Wave Newspapers asking provocative or engaging questions of some of L.A.’s most popular newsmakers or celebrities.