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Wilkins, the BSO, and “Voices of Loss, Reckoning, and Hope”

Thomas Wilkins
Boston Symphony Orchestra

Saturday, March 11, 2023
8:00 PM

Encore broadcast on Monday, March 20

In the second of three programs of the Boston Symphony’s exploration of music centered on social conversation and transformation, Thomas Wilkins conducts Margaret Bonds’s tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. and William Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony, and Anthony McGill is the soloist in Anthony Davis’s You Have the Right to Remain Silent. 

Thomas Wilkins, conductor
Anthony McGill, clarinet

Margaret BONDS Selection from Montgomery Variations
Anthony DAVIS You Have the Right to Remain Silent, for clarinet and orchestra
William DAWSON Negro Folk Symphony

This concert is no longer available on demand.

Hear a preview with conductor Thomas Wilkins using the audio player above, and read the transcript below.

Watch a preview of this concert on GBH's Greater Boston:


Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath at Symphony Hall with Thomas Wilkins, who has a fascinating program here, as part of the festival "Voices of Loss, Reckoning and Hope." Thom, thanks for your time today. I appreciate it.

Thomas Wilkins It's my pleasure to be here.

Brian McCreath Well, I'm curious about this particular program and how it got started with you. Is the piece by Anthony Davis – You Have the Right to Remain Silent – was that sort of the anchor that you then chose music around, or was there a sort of different process involved in putting these three pieces together?

Thomas Wilkins Yeah, you know, it was certainly the piece that was handed to me. It was certainly something that the BSO wanted to do. Anthony [McGill] and I have known each other for, oh my gosh, dozens of years now. And this is the first time that we've worked together with him as a soloist. So this is kind of fun. I've known he and his brother Damarre for a long, long time, who's a fabulous flute player, by the way. So I was kind of excited to know that this was going to be the center. But then, based on the theme of this mini–festival, I think Tony asked if I would consider doing the Dawson.

Brian McCreath Yeah. Tony Fogg [BSO Vice President for Artistic Planning].

Thomas Wilkins Tony Fogg, yeah. And I, of course, have done the Dawson many times and it makes perfect sense in the grand scheme of things. I mean, this is a piece about getting reconnected to your heritage and also trying to live a new life in a new land far away from your homeland, which means that, not only you're developing a new voice, but you're hanging onto your old voice. And you're also hoping, I mean, you know, the piece is really all about aspiration ultimately. And so at the end, "Oh, let me shine sound like a morning star," you know, that's the aspirational part of the piece going forward. So it made perfect sense.

And then the Bonds, you know, inspired by the civil rights movement, with Montgomery, Alabama, sort of being the epicenter of the entire movement and her being inspired by Martin Luther King. And during the civil rights movement, the grown–ups in my life said that we had two weapons. We had our voices – speaking of voices – and we had our feet, for marching. And so she you know, she begins with the "Decision." And for us, we end with the "March," with the aspirational "Prayer Meeting" in the middle.

Brian McCreath I like the way that you're talking about the Dawson, especially as being a piece that speaks to the overall idea of homeland and integration. I guess, for both the Bonds and the Dawson, what strikes me is there's a way to look at it as a sort of time capsule, as of a particular time, and we sort of just look back at that time.

Thomas Wilkins Right.

Brian McCreath And then there's the other way of looking at it, that this is relevant to us right now, today. The message of these pieces is relevant to you right now. And tell me about that, especially with the Dawson. How does that strike you, those two different ways of looking at it?

Thomas Wilkins Yeah, I think... I'm pausing because I was reading something about the value of anything that is built to withstand the test of time and what that means. And, you know, I've often made the point, for example, that there's a reason why we still listen to Beethoven and Brahms and Mozart and Haydn. Because, you know, when Beethoven goes from C minor to C major at the end and he says to us, grab hold of this major sonority in the last movement, because whatever your words are, they're not going to be major sonority, they're going to be, "I can do this, this is what I was built for." Whatever that challenge was in C minor in the first movement, whatever words I have for that, now I have different words. And that was Beethoven, for crying out loud. And we're still listening to that and feeling that same way today. Or Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony, from E minor to E major, I mean, even using the same music from the first movement and all of a sudden the last movement is in E major and it sounds like Graduation Day. He's like, "this is something I can do. This is something I was built for." Again, it has the infrastructure and the composition to withstand the test of time.

So it's as appropriate for us to be hearing this message of Dawson and Bonds today as it was in their own time period. So I think that's a very good point you make, that we can look at it in a time capsule and say this is what those people were going through and dealing with. And here we are in 2023, and we're still there. And therefore, this message is as poignant as it was in those days. 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.

Brian McCreath When we talk about the Bonds piece, the Margaret Bonds, especially the movements you're doing, the first three movements describe a process – Decision, Prayer, March – that is very much of that time. And I wonder what your personal experience is of that process, of that time, your elders and what you might have heard from them and how that helps you to sort of bring the atmosphere that's necessary for this piece to be successful.

Thomas Wilkins Yeah, it helps to be this age. [Laughs]

Brian McCreath [Laughs] Okay.

Thomas Wilkins Because I've lived a life and seen a lot. And to have, you know, I say young children yet my daughters are 30 years old now, but to see that the world that they're in is only relatively better than the world that I was in, it... I refuse to be disappointed. You know, Mr. Rogers said, you have to always look to the helpers because there will always be this kind of conflict, and it's up to the helpers to do the shouting and to add voice to the voiceless. And so for me personally, you know, I wanted to do those three movements.

There's something about the combination of making a decision that you can't go forward unless you actually do something, that decision that it will only get better if you make an effort to try to make it better. You know, I say to kids all the time when they think about their dreams, that wishing without working only leads to disappointment. And so for me, that's the decision, is that the whole reason that you are going to work is because you wish. And in my own personal life, everything has been a prayerful movement. You know, I always pray to God to slam the door shut that I'm not supposed to walk through. But the ones that I'm supposed to walk through, I need courage to walk through them. And so that has informed my life choices and and moves, as it were. But then, you know, the march, there's something determined in the march. I was looking for the word. I think it's not defiant. It's determined. I mean, it can be defiant, but there's also a, we're going to do this and we're going to keep doing this until we can't do it anymore. You know, there's a line from the, I believe it was from the civil rights movement, that said, you know, we didn't come this far just to come this far.

Brian McCreath That's wonderful. When you look at the Bonds, as I mentioned, there's a prayer before the march, the Decision, Prayer, March. In Anthony Davis's piece – and I'm still coming to grips with it, I don't know the piece well, so help me out if I'm a little off base here – but if Margaret Bonds sees, for the time that was written and what she was saying, that prayer is the source of strength or one of the sources of strength, what I hear in Anthony Davis's piece is maybe some element of that, but a lot more, jazz is a source of strength for the character in You Have the Right to Remain Silent. And I wonder, first of all, does that sound about right or, and then beyond that, does that say something about the time in which Margaret Bonds was writing and the time in which Anthony Davis is writing and the culture that they're representing or expressing is a little different in that way?

Thomas Wilkins Yeah, you know, the spirituality was a biggie during the civil rights movement. So it makes sense that that piece would be built on the song "I Want Jesus to Walk with Me," right? But to your point, you know, I think of like the Harlem Renaissance period, and when people decided, we're going to be comfortable in our own skin. And that's not necessarily saying that there's anything wrong with assimilation. But I've often said that, you know, if you're going to, for example, encourage diversity, you have to be willing to let people be diverse, right? So you have to let the beauty of the differences in us create the us, as a whole. And one of those things that we hear in the Anthony Davis is, this music was a part of us, you know, and even if you go back to the Blues, which gets us to where we are with this music, that was deeply personal music. And of course, you know, as I'm contemplating loss and interrogation and whatever else is going on in the process and injustice even, I think for me personally, that I think your point is spot on, that there's a sense of believing in, hanging onto who I am throughout the course of this so that I don't lose my way in the process.

Brian McCreath Yeah, I mean, I think again, my only scratching–the–surface familiarity with this piece, it reveals itself to be so much about the strength of the individual overcoming this circumstance in which Anthony Davis found himself literally at one time in his life. Tell me a little, you mentioned that you've been good friends with Anthony McGill for a long time. And in this particular piece, this is a concerto unlike any other. So there's an amazing feel to it that's not like another piece that one would hear. But in a very general way, how would you describe the qualities that Anthony brings to his work as a musician, whether it's Principal in the New York Philharmonic or as a soloist or as a chamber musician, what are the things that make him such a compelling musician?

Thomas Wilkins Well, okay, so we can stipulate the talent.

Brian McCreath [Laughs] Okay, fair enough.

But I think that the thing about great artists is that they understand that this music is bigger than us, greater than us, and it therefore requires a requisite humility toward the work. Great artists are always continuing to dig and explore and to, you know, investigate, and, you know, what I say, be a lion chaser and just go after the big stuff, don't ever always have to be safe. And so what surprised me about this piece, because I've obviously never done this piece with him, is how much Improvisation is in this piece. I didn't know this about Anthony. I knew he could read the pants off of anything that you put in front of him, but I had no clue about this. And so that was a big shock. And Anthony Davis puts in so many opportunities where at one moment Anthony McGill is actually playing something printed on the page, and then at the turn of a dime, he's all of a sudden improvising. And so I'm now no longer looking at his part to follow because I got nothing, right? And so that's a surprise to me. And it's a mark of, again, it's a mark of someone... And how do I know? He could have been doing this all along and I never knew it. But the fact that it has made itself known now in this concerto, it was a nice fresh surprise for me about Anthony.

Brian McCreath That's fantastic. I mean, just to unveil this part of Anthony McGill's artistry that doesn't get a chance in the Philharmonic or in the Met where he was before, you don't hear Improvisation in those contexts, but...

Thomas Wilkins Not on purpose anyway. [Laughs]

Brian McCreath [Laughs] But what I love, and I have never heard it quite expressed this way, so I really appreciate, the humility of a great artist to always be looking for more. I think that's a really unspoken quality that is spot on, absolutely true, when you think about great artists.

Thomas Wilkins Well, you know, it's funny. Not that I'm calling myself a great artist, but I know that there was a time in recent history with me that I decided I wasn't going to always play it safe, you know, just amortize repertoire and do the same thing over and over again – which is kind of what's fun about me, it can be scary – that I wanted to be a person that, at this stage in my career, was still willing to jump off a cliff. And that's an exciting new freshness for me.

Brian McCreath I'm glad we're there with you. I'm glad you're taking us over the cliff, wherever it's going. That's great, that's great. Thomas Wilkins, it's always such a such a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you for your thoughts. I appreciate it.

Thomas Wilkins My pleasure.