Thomas Wilkins has coined a term for his current occupation: “COVID conducting.”
The veteran conductor’s clever coinage refers to making emphatic, unmistakable gestures to an ensemble, some members of which can’t hear one another because they are sitting relatively far apart to minimize the risk of spreading COVID.
“Your shoulders are really tired when the day is over!” he reported. “You’ve been waving your arms so crazily!”
Alas, even COVID conducting can’t salvage all performances during the current Omicron wave of the pandemic. Wilkins was speaking from his home in St. Petersburg, Florida. The day of our conversation, he was supposed to be in New Orleans, conducting that city’s orchestra, but his concerts were canceled after two rehearsals when 10 members of the ensemble tested positive.
With any luck, he won’t meet the same fate in Los Angeles, where he is scheduled to lead the Philharmonic in two programs of the music of Duke Ellington. The concerts of Jan. 20 and 21, featuring pianist Gerald Clayton, will include a suite from The River, a 1970 ballet Ellington wrote for the American Ballet Theatre and choreographer Alvin Ailey. The Jan. 22 and 23 events will feature music from his Sacred Concerts.
The longtime music director of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and a regular guest conductor with the LA Phil, Wilkins is a familiar face to Southern California music lovers. He spoke of his longtime love of Ellington’s music in a relaxed conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.
I was somewhat surprised to discover that these will be the Philharmonic’s first performances of The River and Black, Brown and Beige. After Ellington died in 1974, composer Gunther Schuller wrote an essay arguing his music should now become part of the repertoire. Is that finally happening? If so, what took so long?
I think it is starting to happen. I’ve been doing Ellington for the last five to seven seasons. This new project we are doing in L.A. has prompted publishers to start printing scores [of these works], so we’re getting nice, clean parts now. That may be part of the answer to your question. If the parts aren’t in good shape, people are hesitant to approach the works. Now that publishers are reengraving these parts, I think these pieces have a greater chance of becoming part of the regular canon.
But there’s another underlying issue I have been railing against forever. Because we in the classical music world operate so often in the Western European tradition, we feared that if we [performed music that drew upon American popular or folk music], people wouldn’t take us seriously. Samuel Barber is played, but he wrote in the European tradition.
Dvořák famously advised American composers to use American folk music in their works, pointing specifically to music of Indigenous peoples and Negro spirituals.
Yes, he said “Your inspiration should come from your own soil.” The irony is composers like Mahler or Dvořák or Tchaikovsky didn’t hesitate to write about their own life experiences in the sound world they grew up in. We hear the Jewishness of Mahler, the Czechness of Dvořák. But for some reason, we are slow to accept anything that approaches “Americanism.” The problem is we rob ourselves of the opportunity of expanding our palate.
Did you propose the LA Phil Ellington concerts, or did the orchestra approach you?
The Philharmonic proposed it. I conducted a Harlem Renaissance program on a subscription concert about three seasons ago that included music of Ellington. I think they knew I feel really comfortable with Ellington, so when the idea came up to dig a little deeper [into his repertory], I was probably the first person who popped into their heads.
How do you define Ellington’s aesthetic, and how do you capture it for a symphony orchestra?
Ellington struts a lot. I often use that word in rehearsal. He doesn’t walk, or meander: He struts. There’s some attitude in there. There’s a great deal of self-awareness and self-assuredness in his music. Being a 55-year-old Black man who grew up during the civil rights movement, it’s a language I have heard all my life. It comes to me naturally. So maybe we can say it’s in my DNA. I look at a measure of an Ellington score and I go, “There’s that lick.” I don’t even have to think about it.
There’s also an elegance to his writing. I think of the “Lake” movement from The River suite. It’s so elegant. We used to come up with fancy ways of describing jazz so people would take it seriously. We don’t have to hyperintellectualize it. We can just call it music.
How do you prepare to conduct an Ellington program? Do you listen to the original recordings? Do you read about when and how the pieces were created?
I don’t go back and do a whole lot of reading, but I do go back and do a lot of listening.
What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of encountering Ellington’s music via these orchestral transcriptions, as opposed to hearing a jazz band play them, or listening to the original recordings?
I think it just gives us more. If you have a good orchestrator/arranger, they know how to make that music sound as if the orchestra was there all along. Every pop artist we’ve had at the Hollywood Bowl — and that’s no exaggeration — was in shock at how much richer their music sounded with the voice of an orchestra underneath it.
If we ignore these orchestral versions, we’re really missing out. If we didn’t have them, it wouldn’t diminish the importance of Duke Ellington, but having them certainly enhances the importance of Duke Ellington.
Do these arrangements allow for any improvisations?
Yes, within a confined amount of time. We have hired extra musicians who can read a set of chord changes and just go.
Does that ever make the orchestral players a little nervous?
No, I think it makes them excited. We all love music, and when you’re in the presence of really good music-making, you’re just pumped.
Looking back, do you remember the first time you heard Ellington’s music?
It was probably as a kid. I may have heard it in my house, but at home I heard gospel music more than anything else. When I was in junior high and high school, there were band arrangements of things like “Satin Doll.” I had a high school band director who was a well-known local jazz musician. He often would write jazz music for us to play at half-time shows.
What instrument did you play in the high school band?
I played tuba in the band and cello in the orchestra. I actually started on the cello, but I wanted to get into the band so I could wear a uniform. I thought girls would be attracted to a band uniform.
You were born and raised in Norfolk, Virginia. The Virginia Symphony recently named you principal guest conductor, which must have been a nice full-circle moment.
Yes! It’s the orchestra that introduced me to classical music. The Virginia Symphony was then the Norfolk Symphony Orchestra, and I went with my third-grade class to hear a concert. The sound, and the conductor’s seemingly direct involvement with the sound, captivated me. I came home and said, ‘This is what I want to do.’
Were there any musicians in your family?
My mother was the organist of a little storefront church. My stepmother was also a church organist. She was the one who understood what my journey was all about — and was able to convey that to the rest of the family.
How old were you when you first started playing music?
Eight years old. In second grade, we got these little black “melody flutes,” which had three holes in the top and four in the bottom. I was fascinated by that thing. I figured out that if I didn’t strictly stay with the finger chart, I could produce other notes. So I’d play tunes other than the ones in the book that we were learning from.
I remember the day my mother told me I was old enough to go to the public library by myself. That’s where all the classical music was. I’d sit in the library, listening to albums — things like Rhapsody in Blue, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, Mahler’s First Symphony. I didn’t have words for it, but I knew that I loved that sound.
There weren’t a lot of Black conductor role models when you were growing up. Did it ever feel to you that “I’m not sure I’m allowed to do this?”
Those thoughts never entered my mind. Or if they did, they were dismissed summarily. The tug of music was too profound. When I told people in my neighborhood that I wanted to be a conductor, no grownup ever said “No. Little Black boys don’t grow up to be conductors.” When I give talks on education today, I tell people to be very careful with the words they use around young children.
I’m not naïve. I’m sure there are jobs that I didn’t get based on the way I look. But I just don’t worry about that. I put my head down and go to work. I had a reporter once who did her best to tell me how hard it was to be a Black conductor. I told her, “When you go into the Army, and you enroll in basic training, they put you through an obstacle course. Do you think the intention is to make you weaker, or stronger?”
I have twin daughters, and one of them was asked by a teacher in fifth or sixth grade what she wanted to do when she grew up. She said she might want to be an orchestra conductor, and the teacher said, “That’s not going to happen.” She replied, “I live with one!”
How important was the training you received at the New England Conservatory of Music?
It was a great education. Part of it was because my teacher, Richard Pittman, said to me that if I didn’t work really hard, he would kick me out of school. To be on the doorstep of your dreams and be told “You need to give us more” really informed my work ethic. When my wife met him for the first time, she said, “You know you’ve turned my husband into a workaholic, right?” He said, “Yep!” He taught me what it meant to have musical and intellectual integrity. When I’m traveling, I never go anywhere without a score. I’m always looking to the next thing.
So what is the next thing?
After L.A., I’m off to Milwaukee for a subscription week. Then I’ll be at the New World Symphony in Miami for a Harlem Renaissance Festival. So it’s a pretty busy run. I’m in my 12th season as principal conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, and I usually end up doing some concerts with the LA Phil at the Bowl as well. I’m a known quantity, and we enjoy each other, so we can quickly get down to work.
Other than the amount of rehearsal, does conducting in Disney Hall feel different than doing so at the Bowl?
Yes. My objective is to elevate their own musicianship. If I give them less physical information, they have to really lock into one another and play like a giant chamber ensemble. That is glorious to a professional musician — to let go of the reins from time to time. When you’re indoors, you can do that really well. When you’re outdoors, you have to be cognizant of the fact that sometimes the left side of the orchestra can’t hear the right side very well. The sound disappears too quickly. This happened during COVID, too, when we were all indoors but socially distanced.
Yes, the aforementioned COVID conducting. But I gather you enjoy what you’re doing even when the conditions are challenging.
Oh, yes. My happiest place is where I’m in the midst of making music.
Thomas Wilkins conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic in two “Symphonic Ellington” concerts on Jan. 20–21 and 22–23 in Walt Disney Concert Hall. For more information, go to laphil.com.