Saturday, February 19, 2011 'New BSO Conductor Teaches Kids To Love Classical Music, One Wisecrack At A Time'

["Thomas Wilkins, the BSO's new youth and family concerts conductor, talks to the audience during Wednesday's performance. (Courtesy Hilary Scott/BSO)"]

Feb 18, 2011, 4:41 PM
Sacha Pfeiffer
“BOSTON — If you took a poll that asked, 'Who’s the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra?', most people would probably say, 'James Levine.' He’s lead maestro, of course. But the BSO also has several others, and this week it named its first-ever African-American conductor, Thomas Wilkins. The first thing you need to understand about Wilkins’ new job is that he doesn’t conduct in front of a typical classical music audience. He’s the BSO’s new conductor for youth and family concerts. That means his audiences are mainly kids. And this week, at a series of concerts he’s been conducting at Symphony Hall, the building has been packed with thousands of kids — thousands of them, from first-graders to middle-schoolers.

“At the start of his concerts, Wilkins recalls when he was 8 years old and heard his first symphony orchestra. 'I mean, it was unbelievable,' he said. 'I sat in this chair like this, saw all those people, and I looked up and I thought, “Wow, there’s flutes and oboes and clarinets and bassoons and horns and trumpets and trombones and tuba, timpani, snare drum, base drum, cymbals, violins, instruments that look like a violin only slightly larger called violas, cellos, basses. Oh my goodness — all of these sounds!” I thought, “This is incredible. This is absolutely incredible!” I was totally blown away.'

“Wilkins wants the kids in his audiences to be blown away by the symphony, too. So when he conducts, he’s wildly interactive. He cracks jokes. He wanders through the crowd and asks questions. 'OK, so what do you think was going on there?' Wilkins asked at one concert this week after the orchestra finished a piece by Edvard Grieg. 'Yes, right over there — yell it out,' he said, pointing to a young boy seated close to the stage. 'Hockey breakaway?' the boy said. 'Hockey breakaway!' Wilkins bellowed. 'Ladies and gentlemen, that’s the first time I’ve heard that one, ever! Hockey breakaway — very good!'

“I love the element of surprise. I love the fact that kids don’t realize that they’re going to have such a good time at these concerts.”
–Thomas Wilkins

“Wilkins’ children’s concerts are only about an hour long. But he crams them with music, from the John Williams score of 'Star Wars' to Brahms, Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky.” “'I want them to walk away first with this idea that this is a non-threatening environment and, indeed, can be quite fun,' Wilkins said in an interview in his dressing room after one concert this week. 'The second thing that I want them to understand is just how powerful classical music is, and yet in all of its power it has a direct relationship to their everyday lives. And then the third thing I want them to walk away with is just how special it is to be able to get 100 people on stage to work together in a way that all of this power and all of this beauty can be expressed together.'"

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