"It's poetic that I'm back here." Conductor ready for full-circle moment in performance with Virginia Symphony Orchestra

Thomas Wilkins
Posted at 8:06 AM, Feb 17, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-18 08:36:00-05

Inside the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts, the Virginia Symphony Orchestra rehearses for one of the final times before its latest weekend of performances.

Up front, Thomas Wilkins works to bring the emotion out of every note of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4.

"What I'm inviting them to do is become as human as possible in the music-making experience," Wilkins, the group's new principal guest conductor, tells News 3 during the following break.

It's a method that's helped Wilkins build a big career in the orchestra world over the years.

He is principal conductor for the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, music director for the orchestra in Omaha and an artistic advisor for the Boston Symphony, among other roles. Most recently, Wilkins conducted the musicians joining Mary Mary for the gospel duo's nationally televised performance of 'Lift Every Voice and Sing' that aired before the Super Bowl.

"A lot of fun," Wilkins describes the experience. "And then, I flew here the [next day]."

wilkins super bowl.jpg
Thomas Wilkins at Super Bowl LVI.

But this isn't just another appearance — it's a homecoming.

Raised in Norfolk, Wilkins grew up on welfare in a single-parent household. His home was in the Young Terrace public housing complex just a couple blocks away from Harrison Opera House, then called the Norfolk Municipal Auditorium or Arena Theater.

Wilkins says he could see the theater from his house, but it was a field trip inside that changed his life forever.

Wilkins Young Terrace

"I was eight years old. I went to hear what was then called the Norfolk Symphony Orchestra and this man came out," recalled Wilkins. "He started to conduct this thing called the orchestra and this sound just overtook me."

It was the start of a career that would see Wilkins become one of the few Black orchestra conductors in the country.

This weekend, the Tchaikovsky symphony joins other works from Sibelius and Beckel for a program Wilkins describes as "full of destiny."

Audience members will be treated to not only beautiful sounds, but a beautiful, full-circle story of a local boy whose world opened through music.

"You dream bigger and the world seems to be more yours," said Wilkins. "It's poetic that I'm back here with this orchestra. This is the orchestra that introduced me to classical music."

The Virginia Symphony Orchestra's performances featuring Wilkins and violinist Alexi Kenney begin Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the Ferguson Center for the Performing Arts in Newport News. On Saturday, they'll take the stage at 7:30 p.m. at Chrysler Hall in Norfolk, before wrapping up the weekend on Sunday at 2:30 p.m. at the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts in Virginia Beach.

Click HERE for tickets.