Thomas Wikman 1942-2023

Fri Oct 13, 2023 at 9:53 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Thomas Wikman leading a Music of the Baroque concert in the 1970s.

Conductor Thomas Wikman, founder, music director and guiding light of Music of the Baroque for three decades has died, age 81.

“Without Tom Wikman, there would be no Music of the Baroque,” said MOB executive director Declan McGovern. “The standards of excellence he established over three decades continue to this day in our performances. His legacy is rich and deep.” 

“He was visionary in establishing a chorus and orchestra of the highest caliber in the early 1970s to perform works from the 18th century and before for the first time in Chicago and the Midwest.”

When he came to Chicago in 2017, McGovern made a conscious effort to reach out to Wikman, who was bitter for a long time about being forced out by previous management in 2001. “I got to know Tom over the years and always enjoyed our wide-ranging discussions. In our final conversation this past August, he told me how grateful he was for the rich and varied musical life he enjoyed. His gratitude and humility were striking.”

“As a principal legatee of the organization that Tom Wikman founded, I cannot adequately express my gratitude for his vision, his knowledge, and his leadership,” said Dame Jane Glover, current MOB music director, in a released statement. “Music of the Baroque was built on all of those, and, like the rest of Chicago’s musical community, I mourn his loss while continuing to celebrate his mighty and lasting achievements. I send profound condolences to his family and friends. Requiem aeternam et lux perpetua luceat eis.

Wikman’s vision of bringing more and better performances of Baroque music to Chicago began at the Church of St. Paul & the Redeemer, where he was music director. He offered free voice lessons to help build a choir and inveigled violinists Elliott Golub and Everett Zlatoff-Mirsky to lead the new ensemble. Wikman conducted performances of two Bach cantatas at the Hyde Park church in 1972. The event drew large audiences and led to more performances and eventually an established series.

The Muskegon, Michigan native was, in many ways, a throwback to earlier centuries of performing musicians. He started composing and playing piano and organ as a child.  By age 7, he was studying harmony, counterpoint, orchestration, and music theory with composer Carl Borgeson. A largely self-educated autodidact, Wikman never earned a college degree.

If his drive and love for music were not always equalled by a secure podium technique or interpersonal skills, Wikman’s programming was rich and uncommonly ambitious. In the 1975-76 season alone, MOB presented Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Purcell’s Fairy Queen, the St. Matthew Passion, Handel’s Semele and a concert performance of Mozart’s Idomeneo.

Thomas Wikman conducting at Church of the Ascension in an undated photo.

Among the works Wikman presented during his three decades with MOB were all of Bach’s major works; Monteverdi’s Vespers of the Blessed Virgin (1610) and his operas L’Orfeo, L’Incoronazione di Poppea, and Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria; Telemann’s Day of Judgement; Purcell’s Fairy Queen and King Arthur; Handel’s Alcina, Alexander’s Feast, Jephtha, Samson, Saul, Semele, Deborah, Athalia, and Theodora. Many of these works were belated Chicago premieres.

Wikman also ventured beyond Baroque, performing Mendelssohn’s Elijah, the Mozart Requiem and Rossini’s Stabat Mater.

Beginning in 1984, he enjoyed a 30-year tenure as choirmaster at the Church of the Ascension.

Music of the Baroque has posted a remembrance of Thomas Wikman here. Next week’s Vivaldi concerts will be dedicated to the memory of MOB’s founder.

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