Like an old friend, conductor Thomas Wilkins returns home to TFO

When Thomas Wilkins got the invitation to guest conduct his former orchestra, he didn’t give it a second thought. TFO’s venues, after all, are practically right next door.

“I just get in the car and drive for seven minutes,’’ he said of his gig at the Mahaffey Theater on Saturday. “It’s that close to my house.’’

A former resident conductor of TFO, Wilkins lives in St. Petersburg with his wife Sheri-Lee, the proud parents of two twin daughters, Erica and Nicole. The convenience of guest conducting in his own back yard is a perk, given that he spends much of his time on planes traveling to Nebraska, where he has served as music director of the Omaha Symphony since 2005.

The revered maestro also is principal conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and holds the Germeshausen Family and Youth Concert Conductor chair with the Boston Symphony.

“So every week I get on a plane to go someplace to go to work,’’ he said. “But with TFO, I’m already here. It’s a nice change of pace.’’

During his tenure with TFO, Wilkins was immensely popular with both musicians and audiences. He transformed the Coffee concerts, giving them more depth but also a lively character that carries on today.

Respected equally for his deep musical talent and easy demeanor, TFO musicians have been looking forward to this week with Wilkins.

“He’s like a warm hug,” violinist Mary Corbett said at rehearsal this week. “Just like a letter from home. Of all the people I’ve worked with in my career, he’s one of the good guys. He has such a genuine love of music and he transmits it so beautifully.”

Principal Harp Anna Kate Mackle says Wilkins puts everyone at ease. “There’s not a toxic bone in his body. His ability to connect with people is amazing. He’s so warm, smart, and funny. It feels like seeing an old friend.”

This weekend Maestro Wilkins conducts a Masterworks program consisting of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7. But the less common piece is William Grant Still’s Symphony No. 1, known as the Afro-American.

“What I like about Still’s music is its honesty,’’ Wilkins said. “He’s comfortable in his own skin. That’s always the first thing that comes to mind with Still: He tells you who he is and who is people are and what they wrestle with.’’

Composed in 1930, the Afro-American received its premiere a year later with the Rochester Philharmonic and enjoyed performances by 35 orchestras over the next decade. Today, it remains the most popular of Still’s nearly 150 works. Even for people who know nothing about orchestral music, the symphony is friendly and accessible, and in some ways predates the easy going, folksy scores of another American icon, Aaron Copland.

“I knew that I wanted to write a symphony,” Still once said. “And I knew that it had to be an American work; and I wanted to demonstrate how the blues, so often considered a lowly expression, could be elevated to the highest musical level.”

Listeners who want to hear more of Still’s music are in luck. For the first time, TFO will perform his Poem for Orchestra during its next Masterworks program, Jan. 18-20.

Aside from conducting such an engaging program this weekend, Wilkins is excited about working with his former orchestra, which he left in 2002.

“I finally got to the point in my life where I’m just having fun and making music with some of the great orchestras on the planet, and the fact that I get to do it with some old friends here at home is kind of neat. I learned how to be a better artist when I was with TFO, so I come back with a sense of gratitude.’’

Tampa Bay Times Masterworks
Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue

Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue comes to life with Cuban jazz pianist Aldo López-Gavilán. Also: Still’s jazz-inspired Symphony No. 1, “Afro-American,” and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7. Thomas Wilkins conducts.

Free tickets for kids and teens in advance.

Fri, Jan 4, 8 pm, Straz Center
Sat, Jan 5, 8 pm, Mahaffey Theater
Sun, Jan 6, 7:30 pm, Ruth Eckerd Hall

Click here for tickets.

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