New York Philharmonic to Play Free Outdoor Concerts June 11 to 16 | Playbill

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Classic Arts Features New York Philharmonic to Play Free Outdoor Concerts June 11 to 16

Thomas Wilkins’s Concerts in the Parks appearances this summer are only one step in a longstanding and evolving connection with the NY Phil.

The New York Philharmonic inaugurated its free summer Concerts in the Parks in 1965. Almost 60 years later, the tradition — which has been presented by Didi and Oscar Schafer since 2007 — continues June 11–16. This summer the conductor is Thomas Wilkins, extending his long-running relationship with the Orchestra through performances that reaffirm the NY Phil’s commitment to bringing world-class performances to New York City communities beyond the confines of David Geffen Hall.

Wilkins first conducted the NY Phil in 2015, leading a program headlined by bass-baritone Eric Owens and celebrating four acclaimed African American concert singers: Betty Allen, George Shirley, William Warfield, and the iconic Marian Anderson, who in the second year of the Concerts in the Parks was the narrator in Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait. Wilkins has since collaborated with the NY Phil in a variety of contexts, including another venerable initiative, the Young People’s Concerts (YPCs), begun 100 years ago and popularized by Leonard Bernstein. Wilkins — who, on top of his myriad conducting responsibilities, is the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s artistic adviser for Education and Community Engagement — is a passionate master of family concerts, understanding the potential impact of the endeavor in broader terms. 

“My concerts are less about music and more about life; I find music that fits the life skills that I want to teach,” he says. “If it’s a program about rhythm, pace, and pulse in music, it’s really about perseverance. If it’s a program about orchestration, it’s really about community.”

His vision is born of life experience. As an eight-year-old, Wilkins recalls, “I was a kid in a housing project in Norfolk, Virginia, with a single mother on welfare, and went with my third-grade class to hear the orchestra. I walked out of that concert that day and knew that I wanted to be a conductor. Music was calling me by name. So, I know personally of its transformative power.” 

The conductor feels an obligation to pay this experience forward as he and the NY Phil craft programs that reach the tens of thousands of New Yorkers and visitors who attend Concerts in the Parks across the city each summer. “If indeed this music is life-altering and life-affirming,” he explains, “it is a moral responsibility to make sure that it reaches the ears and hearts of as many people as possible.”

Programming also matters. Wilkins’s NY Phil appearances, including a recent performance of movie music by jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard, consistently feature composers of color.

“We’ve discovered since George Floyd that we’ve ignored people who were creating but never had the opportunity to have their music played,” he observes. This summer he conducts Four Black American Dances, by the eclectic, Grammy-nominated Atlanta native Carlos Simon. Its four movements — Ring Shout, Waltz, Tap!, and Holy Dance — commemorate the historical place of dance in African American social life. The program also includes staples of the repertoire by Beethoven and Rimsky-Korsakov, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto — featuring 27-year-old soloist Randall Goosby, who made his own NY Phil debut on a YPC — and two works cultivated through the NY Phil Very Young Composers Program. These last are juxtaposed with the overture from Elgar’s The Wand of Youth, based on material that the composer compiled during his own childhood.

Wilkins is scheduled to return to the Orchestra for subscription concerts, October 17 and 19, which repeat Simon’s dances along with music by three generations of African American composers: William Grant Still’s Symphony No. 4, Autochthonous; David Baker’s Kosbro; and the New York Premiere of a cello concerto, spotlighting Seth Parker Woods, by the Brooklyn-born Haitian American composer Nathalie Joachim.

“At this stage of my life,” Wilkins reflects, “I just want to invite the orchestra that is in front of me to experience what it means to be in love with music.” However, with musical tastes encompassing Duke Ellington, Willie Nelson, John Coltrane, and James Taylor (“my all-time favorite artist in any genre”), the conductor also realizes “it’s always been bigger than us.” He remains devout in his belief in ensuring access to the infinitely renewable power of music: “Who else deserves to experience beauty for the first time? Who else needs to find wonder?"

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