In my many years of interviewing famous classical musicians, I’ve never met an instrumentalist who didn’t want to be a singer. Thomas Wilkins, with his incredibly clear conducting style, turned the entire Sarasota Orchestra into singers this past weekend, and even the crummy acoustics of the Van Wezel couldn’t muddy this performance.
Wilkins conducts music, not beats, and, in doing so, elicits a warm but transparent sound that is electrifying. There are lots of really fine conductors around — from Los Angeles’ Gustavo Dudamel to New York City’s Alan Gilbert — who are miles apart in style but manage to achieve the right results. Wilkins does it, stylistically and musically, with an understated musicianship that generates passion and excitement from his players.
As the music director of the Omaha Symphony, Wilkins has impeccable bi-coastal credentials as the principal guest conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and the Youth Concert Conductor of the Boston Symphony. But credentials mean zilch if that baton he wields isn’t eloquent.
In this weekend’s cleverly-aligned program of Mozart’s “Jupiter Symphony (No. 41)” and “The Planets,” by Gustav Holst, Wilkins brought out more than the best from the Sarasota Orchestra, an ensemble that is positively blossoming as it gets to play under new people with new ideas. Together, Wilkins and the Sarasota musicians became a true Mozartean ensemble, expansive — even in the brisk finale of the Jupiter — but never rushing and always breathing and singing through phrases. Much of their performance, especially in the second movement’s gorgeous Andante cantabile, reminded me of a great Mozart recitative and aria such as “Dove sono,” from “Le Nozze di Figaro,” sung by a greatly capacious soprano, molding phrases with arcs that are inherent but too often missed in Mozart.
The Holst was accompanied by some truly magnificent photos of the planet and astounding visuals that brought this old friend-of-a-piece a freshness and vibrancy. Rather than detracting from the music, they added a new inspiration and showed how far ahead of his time Holst was with his musical dream of our solar system.
In this intense, visually popping, audibly exhilarating performance, just a few of the highlights included a brief but captivating euphonium solo in “Mars, the Bringer of War,” some masterful playing from concertmaster Daniel Jordan, cellist Abraham Feder and the great wind section of this ensemble throughout the piece. The majesty the orchestra and Wilkins brought to the famously flamboyant “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” was striking, particularly for the veddy British hymn that, in their hands, might transport the entire royal armada to the stars without a ripple. We can’t overlook the woman behind me who, when seeing that “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age,” was next in line, whispered, “Yeah, we needed THAT!” And the offstage voices of the women of Gloria Musicae, under the direction of Joseph Holt, added just the right other-worldly manifestation to “Neptune, the Mystic.”
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