Thomas Wilkins, Beyond the Baton
Born to a single mother on welfare, Thomas Wilkins grew up to become a remarkable conductor of orchestras across the country, including the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Boston Pops, the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, and the Omaha Symphony Orchestra, where he holds the title of Music Director Laureate. Airing on GBH 2 on Friday, October 27, "Beyond the Baton: A Conductor's Journey" is an hour-long film that documents Wilkins’s experience as a Black conductor and his larger impact on the musical world.
Portions of the documentary were filmed at Boston's Symphony Hall, where Wilkins is the Boston Symphony Orchestra's Artistic Advisor for Education and Community Engagement. As part of his work with the BSO, on October 25-28, Wilkins will conduct a series of youth and family concerts, with a program called "May I Have Your Attention Please," described as "a musical look at getting, giving, and paying attention." Saturday, October 28, Wilkins leads two versions of this program, the first of which, at 10:00am, is designated as sensory-friendly.
Wilkins has spoken with CRB a number of times over his years working with the BSO. In 2022, he conducted music by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Duke Ellington, and his personal friend Victor Wooten, who played electric bass in his own concerto. In an interview ahead of that concert, he told Brian McCreath about spending time with the Wooten family as a young musician:
"I go over there, eat food, and then all of us would share music on the weekends, sitting around doing nothing, and I was playing Shostakovich and Beethoven and Brahms and Mozart for them. They were playing John Coltrane and Miles Davis for me. And we really informed each other about the musical worlds that we were existing in."
And in 2023, he conducted Margaret Bonds’s tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., Montgomery Variations, William Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony, and Anthony Davis’s You Have the Right to Remain Silent, with soloist Anthony McGill. This was part of the BSO's "Voices of Loss, Reckoning, and Hope," a series of three programs exploring music centered on social conversation and transformation. About the messages behind the music in this concert, he said,
"You know, a friend of mine's mother used to say to him, it always works out in the end. And if you think you're at the end and it's not all right, then you're not at the end. And it's a great message of perseverance that, you know, you can only go as far as you can see, but then when you get there, you realize you can see even further. But it involves going in, involves moving, you know, you can't stand still and expect the world to change. You can't keep quiet and expect the world to change. And I think this is part of what this music is about, too."
Hear GBH's Arun Rath interview Thomas Wilkins on All Things Considered.
Beyond the Baton: A Conductor's Journey airs on Oct. 27, 2023 at 10:30pm, on GBH 2.
Learn more about the Boston Symphony’s Family Concerts with Thomas Wilkins, Oct. 25-28, at the BSO box office.