The review below appeared in the Albuquerque Journal of October 15, 2000.
The race for the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra conductor continues. As Friday night's performance by this month's contender, Thomas Wilkins, revealed, the competition is offering a definitive answer for anyone who wonders what exactly a conductor does besides wave that stick.
Friday night's orchestra sounded and played like a completely different ensemble from last month's NMSO; both were quite different from former conductor David Lockington's NMSO.
The conductor beats time but above all he or she brings a unique set of ears and an individual concept to the podium. The quality of that vision and the capacity to translate it form the cornerstones of the conductor's art. For the NMSO, the challenge rests in finding that person whose vision and sound concept best match its own.
Wilkins clearly arrived with a viewpoint and knew how to get it across. At 43, he has compiled some significant experience. In his seventh season as Resident Conductor of the Florida Orchestra, he added that same position this season with the Detroit Symphony. Born in Norfolk, VA, he follows the peripatetic pattern of many conductors. From his home in St. Petersburg, Fla., he travels about the States, teaching on several music faculties, guest conducting with orchestras including those of Dallas and Baltimore and, this season, Cleveland.
A tall and elegant figure, Wilkins brought a fluid grace to the podium. The opening Mozart Symphony No. 35 was given a warm and lyrical reading as the orchestra responded to Wilkins' flowing musicality. It was a Mozart of intimate charm, appropriate for this midpoint between the lightness of the composer's serenades and the force of his final symphonies. Missing, however, were the fire Mozart wanted in the first movement and the precise articulation and rhythmic definition that would have sharpened the impact.
As the rest of the program confirmed, Wilkins' great strength lies in his musicality. He possesses an innate lyricism that made every note sing and evoked exceptional warmth from the musicians. His emphasis Friday evening was not on technical details but on reaching for the underlying expressive intent of the composer.
Given this program's range and only a week with the orchestra, Wilkins apparently opted for the larger picture. Neither sloppy nor finely polished, the NMSO's playing was always full of feeling, speaking directly to the heart. The question remains whether Wilkins is by nature a conductor who favors a broad take with a colorful palette. Or is he someone who given time would attend to more detailed orchestral building and probe more deeply into the score?
Two selections with the NMSO Chorus, ably prepared by its director Roger Melone, revealed Wilkins' capacity to translate his musicality into the vocal arena. In both Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms and especially Verdi's Te Deum, he drew a new expressive warmth from the singers, their tone more rounded, their emotions more free. The Verdi in particular benefited from his capacity to create a space for the music's drama which had power without lapsing into overindulgence.
That same ability served him well in the closing Ottorini Respighi work, The Pines of Rome.
Its final movement was a guaranteed knockout punch as Wilkins skillfully built the long crescendo into a tsunami of sound.