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 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!"
He even lets the audience become part of the music. During one rhythmic piece this week, he instructed the crowd members to shout "hey!" in unison each time he raised his left hand, as if they were an additional instrument.
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.
The kids eat it up. Here's what Ezra Berg, a fifth-grader at the Ward School in Chestnut Hill, had to say afterward: "I thought the conductor was really funny because, well, he just made everyone laugh all the time. Usually I wouldn't listen to classical music, but this was just really good."
Many of the kids are completely absorbed in Wilkins' every move. When he walks off the stage and into the center aisle, they swivel around in their seats and crane their necks to keep their eyes on him.
"If you looked at the faces of the children while they were watching the concert and listening to the music, it was just almost spiritual, you know?" said Ken Marsh, a parent chaperone from the Ward School. "You got to see them truly be engaged in the music."
“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
That's even though many of the kids said later that they hadn't expected to like the music at all. They thought it would be boring. Too slow. And no lyrics! But Wilkins says that's exactly why he prefers audiences of children over adults.
"I love the element of surprise," he explained. "I love the fact that kids don't realize that they're going to have such a good time at these concerts. My wife said to me one night — we were on our way to an evening concert and we were in the concert traffic — and she said, 'Does it kind of excite you to realize that all of these people in all of these cars are coming to see you work?' I said, 'Well, yes, but it's much more fun when it's yellow school buses.' "
Wilkins doesn't intend his concerts to be all laughs. He also tries to work in life lessons. Like the value of teamwork, since an orchestra is basically a team. And the power of silence. And the importance of listening.
"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."
About the color of his skin, by the way: Wilkins says he's sorry that, in this era, it's even noteworthy that he's black. But he also says "it delights him" that young African-American kids can see him at the podium in Symphony Hall, baton in hand, and think, "One day, I could do that, too."
This program aired on February 18, 2011.