Conductor / Organist  Thomas  Wikman

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Thomas Wikman is the primary featured artist in the Richard and Judith Mintel Archive of Recordings. He has had an extensive career as a choral and orchestral conductor leading hundreds of concerts in repertoire from the Renaissance to the 20th century. Specializing in the large choral/orchestral works of the 17th through 19th centuries, his discography includes numerous CDs, among them a critically-acclaimed Monteverdi Vespers of 1610.

wikman Mr. Wikman is founder and Conductor Laureate of Chicago’s Music of the Baroque — a professional choral and orchestral ensemble which, during his tenure, gave dozens of concerts annually.  He served as its Music Director for 30 years from 1971 to 2001.  In December 1987, Mr. Wikman led the ensemble in its critically acclaimed New York debut where he presented a sold-out performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.  He also conducted the group both at The Ravinia Festival and in two command performances at the White House.  Mr. Wikman was featured as organist and conductor at the inauguration of the newly restored Library of Congress; opening the Vatican’s “Rome Revisited” exhibit there; his musical offerings were presented before an audience of cardinals and other church dignitaries. He made his debut with the Houston Symphony in December 1999, conducting four performances of Handel’s Messiah.

From 1974 to 1991, he performed large-scale Romantic and 20th-century repertoire with two other groups: the Elgin Choral Union, and the New Oratorio Singers which he founded.  He explored Renaissance repertoire with his two small professional ensembles, the New Court Singers and the Tudor Singers. He has appeared as conductor, organist, and harpsichordist with The Ravinia and Grand Teton Music Festivals.

Mr. Wikman maintained a voice studio, producing vocalists who have performed roles at the Metropolitan and Chicago Lyric Operas, San Franciso Opera, and New York City Opera and the major European Houses, including LaScala, Bayreuth, Vienna, and Berlin. As a pianist, Mr. Wikman regularly accompanied singers in recital including Isola Jones, Frank Guarrera, Simon Estes, Judith Nelson, Tamara Matthews, Patrice Michaels, Richard Versalle, and Gloria Banditelli.

An active organist who has played over 600 recitals, Wikman was the Artistic Director of the Paul Manz Organ series for the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, and he was the organist and Artist-in-Residence at the Chicago Theological Seminary where he played weekly recitals. He has toured Europe seven times as an organist playing recitals in France, Germany, Switzerland, Hungary, Denmark, and Italy. Highlights include recitals at The Friars’ Basilica in Venice; Saint-Sulpice, Paris; and The Royal Castle at Hillerod, Denmark. He has made numerous appearances on the Flentrop organ at the Busch-Reisinger Museum, Harvard University.

In May 2002, he was awarded the degree of  Doctor of Fine Arts (Honoris Causa) from the University of Illinois at Chicago for “making an incomparable contribution to the musical life of Chicago.”

As Choirmaster of Church of the Ascension, Mr. Wikman conducted the professional choir there in more than 1700 worship services replete with masterpieces from the year 1000 A.D. to the present, including pieces by Orlando di Lasso, de Victoria, Palestrina, Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Haydn, Liszt, Brahms, Herbert Howells, Leo Sowerby, and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Born in Muskegon, Michigan, Mr. Wikman was given a rigorous musical education from an early age.  He began composing and playing the piano at age five, and was soon performing frequently in public. At age seven, he began formal training with composer Carl Borgeson, studying composition, harmony, form, and analysis, counterpoint and orchestration. Throughout his early years in Michigan, he was active in both amateur and professional circles as a composer, pianist, trombonist, organist, and church choir director. As a young man, he continued his musical studies in Chicago primarily with Leo Sowerby and also with Stella Roberts, Jeanne Boyd, and Irwin Fischer. He studied organ and Gregorian chant with Benjamin Hadley and others; he studied voice with Don Murray and Norman Gulbrandsen.

==  Biography (slightly edited, and photo added) from  
==  Names which are links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  


Being at WNIB, Classical 97 for a quarter century, it was my great pleasure to promote concerts in the Chicago area.  Music of the Baroque, and its founder/director Thomas Wikman came up regularly, and in July of 1997, we sat down for an in-depth interview.  Portions were used on the radio, and now the entire conversation has been transcribed and presented on this webpage.

Bruce Duffie:   You are the founder and director of Music of the Baroque.  How did you get the idea to create such a group?

Thomas Wikman:   I was the choral director and organist at the Church of St. Paul & the Redeemer, and we started doing Sunday afternoon concerts, mainly of Renaissance music of the type that we sang in the Sunday morning Mass.  After I’d been there maybe three years, we decided to combine with orchestra and present Bach Cantatas, and the response was so immediate that we just kept going doing programs with orchestra.  We branched out doing larger pieces, and in our second year, we did the St. John Passion of Bach, and Semele of Handel, and it just grew from there.

BD:   What year was it that you actually became the group with the name Music of the Baroque?

Wikman:   1972.

BD:   Is it comforting to know that you’ve got a solid group that has done nothing but expand its concert series?

Wikman:   Of course!  It’s been a unique opportunity.  I’m a very lucky conductor that I’ve been able to work with such a stable group of people over such a long period of time, and to work on problems of style and performance in a way that very few people have the opportunity to do anymore.  This was quite common with orchestras fifty years ago, but not so much anymore, although period-instrument ensembles have this advantage too, but there are far fewer musicians in that world than there are in the larger world of modern instrumental music.

BD:   I usually ask conductors how they select their repertoire.  You have a much smaller period, but I’m assuming that you have a much larger range within that period from which to select.

Wikman:   We actually have a longer period of time, with a greater span of centuries than any symphony orchestra or opera company, because we perform Gregorian chant, and we’ve gone as late as Rossini (1792-1868) and Mendelssohn (1809-1847).  So actually we’re dealing with about eight hundred years of music.

BD:   I assume there’s not very much extant from the first few decades of that period.  [Both laugh]

Wikman:   We do chant, and then we pick up again with the Renaissance with people like Josquin.  So, starting at the end of the fifteenth century, we actually do quite a lot of this music because our most popular set of concerts every year
where we literally sell every ticketis our Christmas Brass and Choral Concert, in which we do music mainly centering on the Italian Renaissance, but also going back to Isaac (c. 1450-1517), Josquin (c. 1450-1521), and people like that.

BD:   Are you able to do
new pieces all the time without repeating too much?

Wikman:   We both repeat and do
new pieces.  It’s important to do new pieces, because you want to hear the repertoire, and you want to have the public hear this repertoire.  But it’s also important to repeat, so that you can refine things and keep deepening your interpretation and your approach.  Both aspects are important.  You go absolutely stale if you do nothing but repeats, but you can be rag-bag if you don’t ever repeat things, and always go on to other things.

BD:   [Musing a bit]  It is interesting to think of a Renaissance group doing
new things!

Wikman:   [Laughing]  They are new to our audience!

BD:   Is it exciting bringing a piece to life that maybe hasn’t been done in two, or three, or four, or five or even eight hundred years?

Wikman:   Sure, or even having it heard by more people than just a kind of specialist crowd.  I remember one Christmas I did a couple of Josquin pieces, one of which was an incredible motet Mittit ad Virginum, which goes on for some eight minutes.  For me, Josquin is as great a composer as Bach (1685-1750) or Mozart (1756-1791), and at the performance was Christoph Eschenbach.  He came backstage afterwards and he said, “Amazing!  I learned about Josquin Des Prez in school, but I never have heard an actual live performance!”  He was just astounded.  He said, “This is great music!”  Well, yes, it certainly is!  [Both laugh]
BD:   Do you know before you begin the preparation if a piece of music is great?

Wikman:   I sure do.  Otherwise I don’t perform it.  Do I think that every single piece of music I perform is an outstanding masterpiece?  No, because some things are fun to do just because they’re light and entertaining, or have a certain function that way.  But I simply do not perform music that I’m not a hundred percent in sympathy with.

BD:   How do you decide what grabs you?

Wikman:   By reading the score.

BD:   But when you really get into it, are you ever surprised by what you find?

Wikman:   When I’m studying the score, that’s getting into it, and that makes the determination.

BD:   Is there ever something that on the surface you say, “This should probably be pretty good,” and then you find some incredible depth to it?

Wikman:   Oh sure.  You keep studying, and it deepens your knowledge of a piece.  I find that the greatest pieces are not all that recondite.  Sometimes the style is hard to teach to a bunch of performers, especially if something falls in the cracks.  When I first read The Day of Judgment [Der Tag des Gerichts (1761-2)] of Telemann (1681-1767), I knew it was a great, great piece.  There’s no other famous music quite in that style, yet some parts of it sound like it should be Beethoven (1770-1827).  Other parts sound like Handel (1685-1759).  There are things that are very romantic in their approach, so it falls in the cracks.  There’s also some Mannheim School (c. 1740-1780) writing in there, so it was very hard for us to bring off a performance, because we had to literally build a style to play the piece.  It’s like people who have to use special machines to do certain jobs that haven’t been done before.

BD:   [With mock horror]  You don’t view your orchestra as a music machine, do you???

Wikman:   [Laughs]  Perhaps a human machine with their own personalities and temperaments.  Nonetheless, one has to arrive at a style or a way of presenting any piece of music, and certain styles are better known than others... although sometimes that can work against you.  For instance, there are traditions in the performance of certain music that are not quite correct.  They’re based on what was insufficient knowledge once upon a time, and so it becomes a traditional way of playing things, and therefore everybody does it that way, and that’s the routine... except sometimes to break that routine, and to try and do what you think you know is right, is a very difficult thing.

BD:   Is it necessary that we always do everything correctly?

Wikman:   You should try as much as possible within your power to imagine what this music would have sounded like.  You certainly have to arrive at a logical sense of style, or you’re just improvising all the time.  To me, music has to have some interior rationalization, or a sense of structure, a sense of the big line of the piece.  For instance, I don’t think that in a lot of music from the time of Mozart and back you have that much choice.  After all, these are very, very known forms.  It’s either a minuet, or basse dance, or something of that particular type.

minuet, (from French menu, “small”), elegant couple dance that dominated aristocratic European ballrooms, especially in France and England, from about 1650 to about 1750. Reputedly derived from the French folk dance branle de Poitou, the court minuet used smaller steps and became slower and increasingly etiquette-laden and spectacular. It was especially popular at the court of Louis XIV of France. Dancers, in the order of their social position, often performed versions with especially choreographed figures, or floor patterns, and prefaced the dance with stylized bows and curtsies to partners and spectators. The basic floor pattern outlined by the dancers was at first a figure 8 and, later, the letter Z.

Musically, the minuet is in moderate triple time (as 3/4 or 3/8) with two sections: minuet and trio (actually a second minuet, originally for three instruments; it derives from the ballroom practice of alternating two minuets). Each consists of two repeated phrases (AA–BB), but the repetition may be varied (AA′–BB′). The overall form is minuet–trio–minuet. The minuet frequently appears in 18th-century suites (groups of dance pieces in the same key), and in Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni onstage musicians play a minuet at the close of the first act. Typically, the third movement of a Classical chamber work (e.g., string quartet) or symphony is a minuet. In most of his symphonies Beethoven replaced the minuet with a scherzo (although he did not always use that term as a designation for the movement), similar or identical in form but much faster and more exuberant. Neoclassical examples of the minuet include Johannes Brahms’s Serenade No. 1 for orchestra, Opus 11 (1857–58), and Arnold Schoenberg’s Piano Suite, Opus 25 (1923).

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basse danse
, (French: “low dance”), courtly dance for couples, originating in 14th-century Italy and fashionable in many varieties for two centuries. Its name is attributed both to its possible origin as a peasant, or “low” dance, and to its style of small gliding steps in which the feet remain close to the ground. Danced by hand-holding couples in a column, it was performed with various combinations of small bows and a series of walking steps completed by drawing the back foot up to the leading foot. The music was in the modern equivalent of 12/8 time. The basse danse was typically followed by its afterdance, the saltarello.

Without a knowledge of how it should sound, you’re just going to be guessing, and performances where the conductor is guessing are dull, or they’re willful, or they don’t give the message.  It’s by finding the right tempo, and right feeling, and the right articulation that you come to a point where you can communicate, where the music seems to come through.  Finding the right tempo and the right articulation is often ninety-five per cent of the problem.  The other five per cent is easily solvable in performance.

BD:   Would it be easier or harder if you could go back two or three hundred years and get a record of those performances?

Wikman:   It’s hard to know what we’d think of those performances.  The world was so different then.  The world was a very dangerous place.  A lot of people didn’t live past the first few years of life.  You had to be pretty tough to survive to the age of thirty.
BD:   If you want to really get it right, is there only one right way to do it, since we have come through several generations of wars, and pestilence, and now vaccines, and atomic bombs?

Wikman:   Let’s take the case of Mozart.  Up until the time of Mozart, instrumental music, while it is important, is nowhere near as important as vocal music.  It
s not even close.  Beethoven is the beginning of something else, as is Brahms, but to me, all of the Mozart symphonies are operas.  If I can’t make up Italian sentences to the phrases, or if I can’t imagine it being sung in the scene of an opera, then I know I’m not at the right tempo.  I haven’t found the right affect for it.  I literally draw all my inspiration from Mozart and conducting from opera.  Every bit of it is Italian opera, and some German opera, but mainly he composed so many more Italian operas that you can always tell that’s how he’s thinking.  His melodies in the symphonies are very much like the cadences of Italian prose.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Tell me the joys and sorrows of working with the human voice.  You’ve got both solo voices and choral voices.

Wikman:   I love singers, and I love great singing.  To me it’s a joy, but it’s hard to do.  Sad to say, in modern times I feel there has been a safe homogenous approach and aspect which has gone into a lot of singing, especially choral singing in the last twenty-five years.  It certainly has produced many well-routined in-tune performances, which you couldn’t get thirty years ago.  Then, it just wasn’t available on records to hear so much music of Tallis (1505-1585) and Byrd (1543-1623), and all these composers sung in performances that were highly disciplined.  Now you have that, but very often there is a sameness of approach, and a safeness of approach in this music that is antithetical to me, and to the whole spirit of early choral music, which is great vibrancy.  The orchestra and the instrumental music is certainly the bottom of the barrel, meaning when the voices come into play, you’re dealing with music largely of greater import.  There are madrigals, which are private entertainment, but we’re talking more about operas and big religious pieces.  They are of a greater magnitude than the instrumental music.

BD:   Are you nearly alone in this thinking?

Wikman:   [Thinks a moment]  I don’t know... I used to have a friend here in Chicago who said he would never go hear a single musical performance if it didn’t have voices.  [Both laugh]  As fine as the Chicago Symphony was, he had no interest in attending if it wasn’t the Verdi Requiem, or the Beethoven Missa Solemnis, or a concert version of an opera.  I’m not like that.  I do like instrumental music, and I love conducting purely instrumental music, but in the period in which I primarily work, the human voice is so important that it is what should inform the performance of the instrumental music, not the other way around.  But by God, the instrumental music of Bach, or Mozart or Haydn is just incredible.

BD:   Is there any way we could get back to that today?

Wikman:   You can never tire of the fight of trying to resolve all these things.  There are conductors who take that opinion.  They say, “This music was written so long ago that we don’t know how it was performed.  Therefore, anybody can have an opinion.”  Democratically that’s true, but to me it’s easy to drift away from where the music should go.  You get performances in which the tempos are literally going half what they should, or twice what they should.  When you get to that point, I can’t hear the music at all.  In my own performances, I know if I vary by more than a couple of metronome markings, more than a couple of beats, I can hardly stay and listen to it.  All of a sudden, what should be reposeful becomes hectic, or what should be moving and flowing becomes stuck, and if that narrow range can have that influence, when you go way off the deep end on tempos, you’re in another world.  For instance, once upon a time most of Mozart’s operas weren’t performed... only the three big Italian works, and maybe The Magic Flute.  In Germany, The Abduction always held the stage a little bit, but people didn’t perform the early operas at all.  They didn’t even perform Idomeneo or La Clemenza di Tito.  So, what you had was a situation in which there was a narrow perspective of what all these different musical affects were.  A lot of Mozart was in the general repertoire, and there were some people who would play through all the music, and look through all the schools.  But if you’re talking about the educated musicians, what they mainly knew were the big famous pieces, the big concertos, and the last six symphonies.  These were the things that made up the standard repertoire.

BD:   Did they know pieces by other composers, or was it just a narrow range of works?

Wikman:   No, they knew the great pieces of a lot of composers.  But I’m just talking about Mozart here.  You have people who grew up in these traditions, and a lot of people were convinced that the tempo of any minuet was the tempo of the minuet in Don Giovanni.  So, you hear all kinds of minuets performed at that tempo even by famous conductors who were considered great Mozart conductors.  They simply didn’t have exposure to enough of the other things.  They knew that Se vuol’ ballare from The Marriage of Figaro was a minuet, and they knew the minuet in Don Giovanni, and they knew a few other things like that, but they didn’t know the huge number of possibilities of that tempo.  If you go back thirty or forty years to someone like George Szell (1897-1970), a lot of times the outside movements of his Mozart symphonies are unbeatable.  I don’t think there’s any other conductor who could come close to competing with them.  They have just impeccable workmanship and fabulous music-making, right from the heart of the music.  But it’s the middle movements that I have trouble with a lot of times.  Not all the time, but many times the conductors haven’t conducted enough of the early operas, or been exposed to them enough to resolve what these movements should sound like, because there was no concrete example.  Maybe I’m under-selling Szell, but he’s one of the great Mozart conductors, along with Reiner (1888-1963), who was another great Mozartian.

BD:   You are always learning and discovering.  Are we going to face the idea that maybe thirty or forty years from now, people will think Wikman did some of these things right, but he missed out on something else?
Wikman:   Quite possibly!  I am only one human being, and I can only study so much.  I build, as everybody else does, who wants to investigate these matters.  You have tremendous examples before you of tremendous successes.  Szell is one of the conductors I listen to a lot, so I’m trying not to put myself as superior to Szell.  Oh my God, he was a phenomenal musician, but like many of the conductors of that era, he sometimes didn’t have the perfect model in mind.  Sometimes you can even hear in his performance a struggle against it.  He knows a movement needs more motion to it, so you can hear him urging things on a little bit, but sometimes it’s not quite the model that it should be.  Some would say it’s one man’s opinion.  After I’d done a lot of work I ran into a book which really rang accordant with me.  It’s by Jean-Pierre Marty, called The Tempo Indications of Mozart.  I remember reading the first fifty pages, and I said, My God, this guy’s absolutely right!  One of the things he points out is that when you’re conducting an orchestra, it’s not the same as conducting an opera.  I was reading Leinsdorf’s book today, and he said that dealing with voices will bring even the most willful conductor back to the normal way of doing things, because they simply have to breathe.  They can’t sing it that fast, or they can’t sing it that slowly, or they can’t get out the words, or it’s so slow they couldn’t possibly sustain it.  One of the first things that Marty was talking about was the comparison of the opening of Don Giovanni, and a symphony that had exactly had the same tempo indication and the same kind of rhythmic motion.  It’s absolutely true because Leporello has to come up and sing [sings the phrase].  You can maybe do it [sings it a bit slower], or faster [sings it a bit faster], but you can’t go [sings far too slowly].  When you have the words, when you have the sentences spoken, all of a sudden it places it in perfect context.  Marty gives five examples from operas that have exactly the same kind of music and motific kernel as something in a symphony, and conductors should probably try the tempo of those five operatic examples before they try any other speed.  But today there are real extremes of this.  People will take things literally at half or twice the tempo that they should go.

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BD:   Let me ask a real easy question.  What’s the purpose of music?

Wikman:   It has many purposes, but it’s a communication.  The great composers really have something to say, and the part of the interpreter is to somehow liberate that something.  We must try to arrange things so that the voice of the composer comes through.  This is not always a single thing.  This is a highly arguable thing.  There are objective interpreters and subjective interpreters, but we’re all aiming at the same thing.

BD:   The interest is how you get there?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interview with David Schrader.]

Wikman:   The interest is how you get there, absolutely.  For instance, if a work is supposed to lift the spirit, and you don’t find some way of letting that come through because of leaden articulation, or too slow a tempo, then you’ve not let the composer have their voice, so to speak.  I work in an area of music where these things are all much more inter-connected and inter-related, although in later music it sometimes astounds me to hear people perform.  In Mahler symphonies, a folk tune comes up and they have not the foggiest idea of how this really sounds.  It might be a famous song, or a famous ditty.  You have to know all that stuff.

BD:   A Ländler has to really dance.

Wikman:   Right, and if it’s quoting a folksong you have to know the words of the folksongs and what they mean.  But this even exists in the earlier music, in Mozart and Haydn.  You try to track down as much of that as you possibly can, but you’ll never get it all.  Toscanini, that indefatigable student was in his 80s when he said, “I missed this, I missed that, I didn’t understand.
  No one can ever be so confident to think that they have got the whole message.  All you can do is study.

BD:   Is there such a thing as a perfect performance?

Wikman:   No!

BD:   But you strive for it?

Wikman:   You strive for it, but it can’t be perfect.  I don’t even know that you’d want it to be perfect.  I don’t know that that’s the end-all and be-all of performing.  Sometimes performances get close to perfection and they are dead.

BD:   How do you make sure that you don’t strangle the life out of a piece?

Wikman:   Try to use your ears, and try to be acutely sensitive to whether you are doing that or not.  It’s always a battle with any serious musician, I would imagine, at least if there’s any will on their part to investigate all the possibilities and to try to really study.  There are some musicians who are natural, and what I’d call light spirits. They play because they have instinct for music, and that kind of freedom can be very exhilarating.  I’m not trying to put it down.   Music is always in a state of tension between when to control and when to let go.  Something that just lets go and has no underpinning
intellectual or otherwisecan just wander and have no point at all.  For something that’s too tightly controlled, you’re right, it’s like squeezing the juice out of it.

BD:   That all becomes rehearsal technique for you?

Wikman:   Right.

BD:   Do you get enough rehearsal time with Music of the Baroque?

Wikman:   Never!  [Laughs]  I have a fair amount, but I could always use more.

BD:   Is there ever a possibility that you could get too much rehearsal?

Wikman:   Yes.  Sometimes we get to a certain point, and I’ve canceled rehearsals simply because it’s gone well enough that there’s nothing more to do.

BD:   Do you leave a little spark of inspiration for the performance?

Wikman:   Of course, you leave the inspiration, but the important work is done in rehearsals.  We work on articulation, what kind of bow-stroke, how far about the finger board and nearer the bridge is it, how close to the tip, or how close to the frog, how much staccato in the winds, how much separation between notes, all of these things.  It’s also balancing.  Hopefully we get these things down pat, and then they’re ingrained enough that when I conduct the performance, they let go somewhat, and let it fly.

BD:   I would think that would be when the music begins.

Wikman:   Right, because the other things are ready.  It’s like a dance.  You have to learn the steps, and then you let go with it.

BD:   Thinking of the public that is behind you at every performance, some of them know a lot about all of this, and some of them know very little.   Does this make a difference in how you present the works?

Wikman:   No.  I’ve not found that great knowledge is necessary.  Sometimes people know nothing, but they’re inspired to the heavens by the right performances, and the wrong ones leave them cold.  So, it’s not something that’s just knowledge.

BD:   They can be touched by the intangible?

Wikman:   Right.  They don’t know what it is they like.

BD:   Is this music that you can conduct, for everyone?

Wikman:   I think it is, unless your mind is so closed that only late nineteenth century German music or Italian opera will do for you.  One of the greatest things about our age is that we play all this different music.  People ask me if I would have loved to have lived two hundred years ago, and I can tell them no.  I grew up at the tail end of the whole Romantic era, and I can you tell you how narrow a lot of musicians I studied with were.  They were phenomenal musicians, but I had piano teachers who literally would not listen to a note of Mozart or Bach... or maybe they’d listen to Bach if you played one of the Liszt transcriptions.  [Both laugh]  You just got a very short lesson if you would play those pieces.  They had no interest whatsoever.

BD:   Would they also play the Roy Harris and other modern composers?

Wikman:   No, no, they went from Beethoven, who was early music to them, to Rachmaninoff, who was modern music, and that was it.  Within that, some of these people could play anything.  They were phenomenal musicians, but they just couldn’t hear anything that wasn’t in their way of thinking.

BD:   Do you go to contemporary concerts?

Wikman:   I’ve gone to a lot in my lifetime.  Not so much anymore, but I started out as a composer.  Until I was nineteen years old, that’s what I was going to be.

wikman BD:   Why did you abandon that?

Wikman:   My composition teachers were the last generation of people to actually make money from composition, except for the movies, or Andrew Lloyd Webber, or people like that.  They were people who actually got checks in the mail.  When I came along, it was the beginning of the time when you could no longer do that.  You had to direct a modern music ensemble in a university, and hope that if you played someone else’s music, they would play yours.  This has been the unfortunate situation for many composers.

BD:   If you got out of writing new music, why did you not want to direct new music?  Why did you want to direct music that is two and three hundred years old?

Wikman:   I’m an organist, so that was the instrument I performed in public.  I had a profound interest in music of Bach and Buxtehude (1637-1707) and Couperin (1668-1733), and people like this.

BD:   Not Widor (1844-1937) and Duruflé (1902-1986)?

Wikman:   Of course, of course!  [Laughs]  I was practicing Tournemire (1870-1939) today.  I love all music, but with the predominance of vocal music, the fact is that I conduct some of the greatest music ever written.  Since Josquin, Bach and Mozart are the twin gods of music.

BD:   Without mentioning any names, is at all possible that we can get a pillar like Mozart today?

Wikman:   [Thinks a moment]  It’s difficult...  The system that produced musicians like Bach and Mozart is no longer in place.  How would someone acquire the basic skills needed?  There’s no practical application for it.  Perhaps it would help if people were required to write music on demand for money and for performances, and have to go through both the good and bad parts of that.  What a lot of composers today never get is enough feedback.  Mozart would write something, and if it was unplayable, people told him in an instant.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  And then he’d sit down and play it!

Wikman:   [Laughs]  Right, but he was always adjusting things, and trying to find some new way of doing it.  He was a practical musician.  The composer of today has become ever more and more independent of that kind of activity.

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BD:   Are you pleased with where you are at this point in your career?

Wikman:   Yes and no.  I’m pleased that I’ve been able to do what I’ve done, but you can’t live on your past.  I’m always studying, always trying to improve, always trying to dig deeper.  I’m trying to broaden things, and I like to do a lot of different music.  I’m an organist, and I play organ recitals.  I’m also a pianist, and I accompany singers in recitals.  Last year I accompanied Tamara Matthews in a Lieder recital, and I did one with Gloria Banditelli, the wonderful Italian mezzo last year.

BD:   Then you enter into the Schubert realm, as well as other songs?

Wikman:   Actually, my specialty is late romantic music, because I love playing the songs of Rachmaninoff, and Debussy.

BD:   Is that a good counter-balance to the Baroque?

Wikman:   Yes.  I also love playing a lot of twentieth century music on the organ, as well as the baroque music.  I like to do a variety of things, and I would like to expand that.  One of my regrets is that I’ve never conducted a staged opera, and I’ve spent probably the largest portion of my life studying, practicing, and accompanying opera.  [Laughs]

BD:   In the end, is being a musician fun?

Wikman:   Yes and no.  [Laughs]  Someone asked Pavarotti about being overpaid $125,000 for a single recital.  He said, “On the night when I’m in voice, I’m overpaid.  When I
m not in voice, no amount of money in the world could compensate me for the agony.”  That’s what being a musician is like.  When it’s going great, it’s wonderful.  When it’s not, and you’re having to dig it out, it’s really hard.  But generally it’s exhilarating, and certainly stimulating.  It’s never dull, but fun is only one facet of being a musician.

BD:   I trust you’re trying to find all the facets?

Wikman:   Sure.  They find you!  [Much laughter]  If you do your work, sometimes things come up like a charm.  You do your work, you’ve got the viewpoint perfectly, the performances come up and the audience loves them.  It’s great.  Other times, it’s so difficult to get what you want, or the piece itself is so fundamentally difficult, or your singers are out of voice.  There are so many variables.  Like Toscanini said, “Sometimes the chorus is no good; sometimes the soloists are no good; sometimes the orchestra is no good, and many times I’m no good.”

BD:   At least he put a lot of the blame on himself.

Wikman:   Well, you should.  [Laughs]  After all, if he wasn’t responsible, who was?

BD:   Then it is right that we should applaud the conductor a lot more than the performers?

Wikman:   No, the performers are really on the line.  The conductor is trying to organize all this, so that it’s possible for the performers to do their job.  But no, you should not applaud the conductor more than the performers.  If the conductor has set out an interpretation, or a tempo, or a feeling that allows the performers to do really well, they should share in the credit.  But make no mistake about it, it’s the performers that are performing the music, not the conductor.

BD:   Do a lot of conductors forget that?

Wikman:   When they forget it, that
s when I start getting bored with their conducting.  [Both laugh]

BD:   Thank you for sharing all of your knowledge and discovery with Chicago for so many years.

Wikman:   Thank you.


© 1997 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on July 20, 1997.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following month.  This transcription was made in 2022, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.