Thomas Wilkins is back in Norfolk with new Virginia Symphony Orchestra position

By MIKE HOLTZCLAW
VIRGINIAN-PILOT CORRESPONDENT
JUL 19, 2021 AT 8:39 AM

Thomas Wilkins believes music is more than just notes on paper or melodic sounds. It is transformative and alive, and the longtime conductor has made it a goal to share that with audiences.

Wilkins, a Norfolk native, was first exposed to classical music as an 8-year-old at the old Arena Theater. He said recently that he knew then it would be his life’s work. On Friday, the Virginia Symphony Orchestra announced it created a new position just for him — principal guest conductor.

“There’s beauty in the fact that this completes the circle,” Wilkins said in a phone interview from St. Petersburg, Florida, home. “I get to come back home and be a part of a team, be a part of the organization that helped me chart my life course. Therein lies the beauty of all this.”

Wilkins will be introduced at a reception at 4:30 p.m. Monday at Chrysler Hall, which will be free to the public. Eric Jacobsen, the recently named VSO musical director, will also attend.

Wilkins just finished a 17-year run as musical director for the Omaha Symphony. He still serves as principal conductor at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles and conducts for the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

When JoAnn Falletta ended her 30-year term as head of the VSO last year, the symphony’s board asked Wilkins if he wanted to be a candidate for the position. He declined. At 64 and leaving the Omaha position, he was ready for a slower pace. That’s when the VSO asked if he would be interested in a formal support relationship. Wilkins, who has conducted the VSO on several occasions, accepted immediately, becoming VSO’s first African-American artistic leader.

In a news release, VSO Board Chair Mike McClellan said Wilkins and Jacobsen “share the VSO’s commitment to telling our community’s stories and advancing the important conversations that will promote understanding and belonging among all our residents.”

Wilkins graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in 1974, serving as president of the last class in the old building. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the Shenandoah Conservatory of Music and a master’s from the New England Conservatory of Music — a path that he traces back to that performance he witnessed at age 8.

It was Russell Stanger conducting the Norfolk Symphony Orchestra, a forerunner to the VSO. Wilkins doesn’t remember the music, but he has never forgotten the sensation.

“It was as if the music was calling me by my name,” Wilkins said. “There was something about his physical and emotional involvement in that sound. I couldn’t take my eyes off him — the movements he made, the emotions he was conveying. I knew I wanted that to be in my life.”

Wilkins will make his debut on the weekend of Feb. 18 with shows in Norfolk, Newport News and Virginia Beach. The program will include Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. The experience won’t be different in the new role, he said.

“I feel the same with every orchestra I conduct,” Wilkins said. “Once I start, it’s just the work of getting to the beauty. It doesn’t matter if it’s a major symphony or a youth orchestra. It’s all the same. It’s the joy of making music.”

Mike Holtzclaw can be reached at mikeclaw81@yahoo.com.

Reception

The Virginia Symphony Orchestra will introduce Norfolk native Thomas Wilkins as its principal guest conductor at a reception at 4:30 p.m. Monday at Chrysler Hall. The event is free and open to the public.

Virginia Symphony Orchestra upcoming schedule:

July 25 — Town Point Park in Norfolk, 6 p.m., free.

Aug. 19, and Sept. 9, 16 and 30 — Symphony by the Sea, Virginia Beach Oceanfront at 31st Street, 7:30 p.m., free ($100 subscription to series, which also includes two performances by Symphonicity, provides reserved seating and other benefits. Available at neptunefestival.com.)

Sept. 24 to 26 — Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Ravel’s Concerto in G. 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Ferguson Center for the Arts, Newport News; 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Chrysler Hall, Norfolk; 2:30 p.m. Sunday at the Sandler Center in Virginia Beach. Tickets start at $25.

Oct. 15 to 16 — VSO backs the Eagles tribute band Hotel California. 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Ferguson Center for the Arts; 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Chrysler Hall. Tickets start at $25.

Oct. 22-24 — Wynton Marsalis’ Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra, and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9. Shows are 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Ferguson Center for the Arts; 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Chrysler Hall ; 2:30 p.m. Sunday at the Sandler Center. Tickets start at $25.

Oct. 30 — The Final Frontier, featuring music from iconic sci-fi movies and TV shows. 7:30 p.m. at Chrysler Hall. Tickets start at $25.

Ticket information: virginiasymphony.org or call 757-892-6366

VSO Guest Artist: Andrew von Oeyen

Hailed worldwide for his elegant and insightful interpretations, balanced artistry and brilliant technique, Andrew von Oeyen has established himself as one of the most captivating pianists of his generation.

Since his debut at age 16 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Esa-Pekka Salonen, Mr. von Oeyen has extended his interpretive voice to a broad spectrum of repertoire as both a soloist and recitalist. He has collaborated with such ensembles as the Philadelphia Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, National Symphony, Detroit Symphony, Saint Louis Symphony, Seattle Symphony, Dallas Symphony, Atlanta Symphony, Cincinnati Symphony, Mariinsky Orchestra, Berlin Symphony Orchestra, New Japan Philharmonic, Singapore Symphony, Grant Park Orchestra, Ravinia Festival Orchestra, Vancouver Symphony, Utah Symphony, Orchestre Symphonique de Marseille, Geneva Chamber Orchestra, Spoleto USA Orchestra, Slovenian Philharmonic and Slovak Philharmonic. As both soloist and conductor he has led concerti and orchestral works by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Ravel and Kurt Weill. On July 4, 2009, he performed at the U.S. Capitol with the National Symphony in “A Capitol Fourth,” reaching millions worldwide in the multi-award winning PBS live telecast.

‍Mr. von Oeyen has appeared in recital at Wigmore Hall and Barbican Hall in London, Lincoln Center in New York, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., Boston’s Symphony Hall, Zürich’s Tonhalle, Moscow’s Tchaikovsky Hall, St. Petersburg’s Philharmonia, Dublin’s National Concert Hall, Royce Hall in Los Angeles, Herbst Theater in San Francisco, Spivey Hall in Atlanta, Sala São Paulo, Teatro Olimpico in Rome, in Mexico City, Hanoi, Macau, and in every major concert hall of Japan and South Korea. Festival appearances include Aspen, Ravinia, Grant Park, Mainly Mozart, Saratoga, Schubertiade, Spoleto, Brevard, Grand Teton, Chautauqua and the Mariinsky’s “Stars of the White Nights.”

Mr. von Oeyen has recorded for Warner Classics since 2017. His albums under that label, including works for piano and orchestra by Saint-Saëns, Ravel and Gershwin and a disc including Debussy’s Fantaisie pour Piano et Orchestre, have been met with critical acclaim. Mr. von Oeyen has also recorded award-winning recital albums of Liszt, Debussy, and Stravinsky under the Delos label.

Mr. von Oeyen, of German and Dutch origin, was born in the U.S. He began his piano studies at age 5 and made his solo orchestral debut at age 10. An alumnus of Columbia University and graduate of The Juilliard School, where his principal teachers were Herbert Stessin and Jerome Lowenthal, he also worked with Alfred Brendel and Leon Fleisher. He won the prestigious Gilmore Young Artist Award in 1999 and also took First Prize in the Léni Fé Bland Foundation National Piano Competition in 2001. Mr. von Oeyen lives in Paris and Los Angeles.