Sarasota Orchestra's audience has begun to hear two seasons of Masterworks programs which feature 14 guest conductors. Although not all are candidates, one will likely become the orchestra's new music director. Hearing the orchestra led by a maestro with unfamiliar sensibilities can be a revelation and when the program is powerful that revelation can be life changing.
Performance as a guest conductor is a daunting task. How does a maestro, who has just four rehearsals with the orchestra, manage to draw out the musical ideas, the sounds, the message he wants the audience to hear? There is no established rapport between a first-time guest conductor and players, no history, no common experience. But there is the study of the music itself — a powerful shared connection.
Thomas Wilkins, who will conduct next weekend's program of Gustav Holst's "The Planets" and Mozart's monumental Jupiter Symphony was, for eight years, the resident conductor of the Florida Orchestra in Tampa. During his conducting career, he has led orchestras throughout the United States, including the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, Atlanta Symphony, and the National Symphony in Washington, D.C.
He now conducts the Omaha Symphony but winters with his wife, Sheri-Lee, and twin daughters in St. Petersburg.
With a modulated voice that could calm a wild horse, he says, "I am finally at a stage in my life where I am no longer trying to impress anyone. I am just here to make music. I have a healthy respect for the orchestra as human beings as well as musicians and I attempt to draw them once more into a love affair with music; to remind people — whether in the orchestra or the audience — why they fell in love with music in the first place. So I just go right to work."
Wilkins can tell in very short order what the spirit and culture of an orchestra is as well as what the work ethic is and how much experience the orchestra has.
"A lot of things happen at the start of a rehearsal when you are sitting in your dressing room. You hear players interact with each other, sometimes you see them greet each other and that reveals a lot. Another thing is you hear them playing excerpts, you hear what the quality of the sound is or if someone is having trouble with a certain passage. One of the important things that the warming up tells you is the level of care and the willingness to do a good job."
In rehearsal, Wilkins always gets right to work, no telling of ingratiating anecdotes, no sly musical jokes. "They are not there to hear my stories. They are there to play music." Players want to be artists and are encouraged in that effort by Wilkins. "We get right to the nuts and bolts of the music so we can then get to the message, the essence of the music. I always play straight through the program. One of my teachers told me to do that just in case the players might have better ideas about the piece than I do."
Wilkins goes through rehearsal at performance tempo so the players know what they must accomplish.
"They need to know what the challenges are in real time that they are going to have to be concerned with as individuals. I never call a player out in rehearsal when mistakes are made. I know they want to get it right. But if they have trouble repeatedly, I'm likely to have a private conversation with that player. You're always thinking when you are on the podium, and sometimes you know you are going to get diminishing returns if you keep at something."
As for the program he will conduct in Sarasota, Wilkins says, "I totally love 'The Planets.' I have wanted to be a conductor ever since I was eight years old and I'll never forget the day my mother told me that I could walk to the public library by myself. I was about 11. In those days you listened to the vinyl with headphones in the library. I listened to 'The Planets' relentlessly. There was something about the colors of the orchestra in that piece and that beautiful hymn that's stuck in the middle of Jupiter. And the Venus section is some of the most serene music I ever heard in my life."
The astonishing opening of "The Planets," however, is anything but serene. That resounding battle call belongs to "Mars, the Bringer of War." From the moment of the first thunder of martial timpani, a big-screen computer-animated odyssey is presented as a visual environment to what the audience hears.
"It is present but not synchronized to the music," says Austin McKinley, who created the program. "The images are the newest and best that the Hubble Telescope can provide and they manage to evoke the ethereal aspects of the planets that so inspired the composer."
"The Planets" has been popular since its first performance in 1918. It has been recorded dozens of times, most recently by John Williams, who paired it with Strauss' "Thus Spake Zarathustra" and his own "Star Wars" theme. That should give you some idea of the kind of excitement you are in for.
While "The Planets" always pleases audiences, the great Symphony No. 41 (Jupiter) by Mozart, composed when he was 31 and the last completed work he wrote, is another thing altogether. It is one of the most powerful transforming expressions in all of music. It was named "Jupiter" not by Mozart but by music impresario Johann Peter Salomon because of the godlike nature of the concluding five-part fugue.
Woody Allen said in his 1979 film "Manhattan" that Mozart's Jupiter was one of the reasons life was worth living. And he used its final movement in the soundtrack as Annie and Alvy drive through the countryside.
Mozart's final three symphonies, Nos. 39, 40 and 41, were composed in nine weeks during the summer of 1788. Even for Mozart this rate of output is remarkable. Nothing is definitively known about the circumstances surrounding their composition, but Mozart probably wrote them for a series of concerts he planned to present in Vienna later that summer, or for a trip to London (which he never made), or perhaps both.
As for what Thomas Wilkins would like to leave with the Sarasota Orchestra, he says, "I try to leave players with a new sense of what it means to be an artist and most importantly a servant. I also hope to leave them with a sense that the orchestra is like a giant chamber ensemble, with each player aware of and listening to each other."
And, of course, a man of Wilkins' wide experience has found a philosophy that guides his life. "It is 'do not squander.' I don't want to squander musical opportunities, because they are all a gift. Just like I don't want to squander my family, because they are a gift. And I don't want to squander time on the golf course, because that is also a gift. I always want to take advantage of any opportunity that I get."