Often, when an orchestra conductor turns around to speak to the audience, it's time to cringe. Conductors are trained to make music, not small talk. • But Tom Wilkins is different. For eight years, until 2002, he was resident conductor of the Florida Orchestra, and because of his witty, welcoming manner on the podium, he was a popular figure with audiences. He's a good conductor, too, and his time here is fondly recalled by the musicians. • So maybe it's no surprise that Wilkins has turned his charm on Hollywood. • Since 2008 he has been principal guest conductor with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra in Los Angeles, where he's fresh off performances with Earth, Wind and Fire and Pink Martini. • Wilkins, 53, also was resident conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra for a decade, and now has his own orchestra, as music director of the Omaha Symphony. He has a busy guest conducting schedule, frequently appearing with the likes of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Indianapolis Symphony and the New Jersey Symphony. • This week he returns to lead the Florida Orchestra in its season-opening concerts featuring The Pines of Rome, Respighi's splashy tone poem. Because Wilkins was always so quick with a quip, we asked him if he would submit to a little pop quiz, and he was happy to play along.
1. Favorite piece to conduct?
Mahler's First Symphony. It's a piece I've known since I was a young boy when I first started to fall in love with classical music. It seems to me that there is not a moment in that symphony that doesn't know me personally. When I was first old enough to walk to the public library by myself, it was a monumental thing because that's where all the albums were. I heard Mahler One at the library. It's always been a very special piece for me.
2. Piece you dream of conducting?
The final scene of Salome. You know why I haven't conducted it? Because I cannot get a soprano to do it for three days straight.
3. Composer to have a beer with?
Haydn, just based on his sense of humor and my sense of humor. Reading through his compositions, you can see the twinkle in his eye.
4. You're conducting The Pines of Rome with the orchestra. The Tampa Bay equivalent should be . . .
The Pines of Pinellas Park.
5. Music playing in your car?
Currently, it's a compilation CD with Willie Nelson, Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder.
9. What's in heavy rotation on your iPod?
I vacillate between Miles Davis, Nancy Wilson, Pink Martini (pictured), James Taylor and opera arias.
6. L.A. celebrity you'd like to be mistaken for?
7. L.A. celebrity you are mistaken for?
I was just mistaken for Al Jarreau leaving the hotel on Monday morning.
8. Favorite movie score?
Seven Years in Tibet.
10. Coolest guest artist you've conducted?
I had a lot of fun with Chris Isaak. I had a lot of fun with B.B. King. Maybe B.B. King would top Chris.
11. Most "pop'' classical artist?
Kirill Gerstein. Kirill thought he was going to be a jazz pianist. He's one classical player who really understands what "groove'' — his word, not mine — is.
12. Most "classical'' pop artist you've worked with?
There's a part of me that wants to say Branford Marsalis, because I've turned Branford on to a lot of classical music. But the pop artist that I've worked with who really loves classical music is Bruce Hornsby. He is a major Charles Ives fanatic.
13. How are L.A. audiences different from those in Tampa Bay?
Not at all. And that was a surprise to me. People love sincerity, and it doesn't matter where you are. The audience at the Bowl has responded to me the same way audiences have responded to me all across the country. They love genuineness and sincerity.
14. If you go to the Hollywood Bowl or any concert in a park, what's in your picnic basket?
One container of Gatorade, two bananas and one Snickers bar.
15. What's the best (or worst) Hollywood habit you've picked up?
Impatience with tourists. Because my hotel is at Hollywood and Highland, and if I ever want to walk to the CVS, I have to weave in and out of people standing on Hollywood Boulevard and taking pictures.
16. What does "going Hollywood'' mean?
Not getting excited when you see actors on the street.
17. What does "going Omaha'' mean?
Engaging strangers in conversation.
18. And "going Tampa Bay''?
Being able to golf in the winter.
19. TV show you never miss? Mad Men.
20. If you could learn a new instrument from scratch, what would it be?
21. What advice would you give to young musicians who want to grow up to be just like you?
Always know that the music is greater than we are.
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at tampabay.com/blogs/critics.