Remembering Thomas Wikman (1942-2023), founder and conductor laureate of Music of the Baroque

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Thomas Wikman, the founder and conductor laureate of Music of the Baroque, has died at the age of 81. A gifted church musician, voice teacher, choirmaster, keyboardist, and orchestral conductor, he formally established Music of the Baroque in 1972, leading the organization for 30 years as music director. Beginning in 1984, he also sustained a 30-year tenure as Choirmaster at Church of the Ascension, a flagship Anglo-Catholic church known for its purity of musical and liturgical tradition and the quality of its all-professional choir.

Born in Muskegon, Michigan, Wikman received a rigorous musical education that in many ways paralleled that of the Renaissance and Baroque composers whose music he loved. He started composing and playing piano at a very young age, and by 7, he was studying harmony, counterpoint, orchestration, and music theory with composer Carl Borgeson. He continued to expand his musical horizons in Chicago, working with Leo Sowerby, Stella Roberts, Jeanne Boyd, and Irwin Fischer, among others. He studied organ and Gregorian chant with Benjamin Hadley and undertook further vocal studies with Don Murray and Norman Gulbrandsen.

After working as a music director in the Chicago suburbs, in 1968, Wikman was offered the position of music director at the Church of St. Paul & the Redeemer in Hyde Park. Although the salary was less than what he was making, the move to the thriving arts community would pay off in other ways. “This neighborhood was so rich in resources,” Wikman said. “I knew what I could do here.” He offered free voice lessons to help build the choir, and word spread throughout the Chicago singing community. Next, he needed an orchestra. Composer Ralph Shapey’s avant-garde concerts at the University of Chicago led Wikman to violinists Elliott Golub and Everett Zlatoff-Mirsky, who agreed to lead the ensemble.

Music of the Baroque’s first official concert took place in 1972 at the Church of St. Paul & the Redeemer. Wikman led a chorus, a quartet of vocal soloists, and an orchestra of 28 in two Bach cantatas, drawing capacity audiences and paving the way for the ensemble to flourish in the decades ahead. Wikman took Music of the Baroque to New York in 1987, performing Bach’s Christmas Oratorio to critical acclaim. In the mid-90s, Wikman led Music of the Baroque in a performance inaugurating the newly restored Library of Congress in front of an audience of cardinals as they opened the Vatican’s “Rome Reborn” exhibit. (The Library of Congress now houses The Mintel Archive, a comprehensive collection of Dick and Judy Mintel’s recordings that includes most of Music of the Baroque’s early performances.) Music of the Baroque also appeared at the Ravinia Music Festival and the White House during his tenure.

Under Thomas Wikman’s direction, Music of the Baroque built a strong and lasting reputation for top-notch performances of large-scale 17th and 18th works, many of which were Chicago premieres. Among the highlights were Monteverdi’s Vespers of the Blessed Virgin (1610), L’Orfeo, L’Incoronazione di Poppea, and Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria; Telemann’s Day of Judgement; Purcell’s Fairy Queen King Arthur; Handel’s Alcina, Alexander’s Feast, Jephtha, Samson, Saul, Semele, Deborah, Athalia, and Theodora; all of Bach’s major choral works. Wikman frequently went beyond the Baroque period, performing Mendelssohn’s Elijah, the Mozart Requiem, and Rossini’s Stabat Mater. He established a strong relationship with WFMT, Chicago’s classical music radio station, that continues to this day.

Music of the Baroque’s music director, Dame Jane Glover, commented:

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.  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 musical activities extended beyond Music of the Baroque. As a conductor, he led the Houston Symphony in Messiah, appeared at the Grand Teton Music Festival, worked with the Elgin Choral Union, and founded the New Oratorio Singers, the New Court Singers, and the Tudor Singers. He maintained an active voice studio, working with singers associated with the Metropolitan and Chicago Lyric Operas, San Francisco Opera, New York City Opera, and major European houses, including La Scala, Bayreuth, Vienna, and Berlin. Wikman was also a recital accompanist for singers including Isola Jones, Frank Guarrera, Simon Estes, Judith Nelson, Tamara Matthews, Patrice Michaels, Richard Versalle, and Gloria Banditelli.

Active as an organist until the end of his life, Wikman played hundreds of recitals as the Artistic Director of the Paul Manz Organ series for the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago and the organist and Artist-in-Residence at the Chicago Theological School. He toured Europe multiple times, giving organ recitals in France, Germany, Switzerland, Hungary, Denmark, and Italy. In May 2002, Wikman 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.”

Music of the Baroque’s Executive Director, Declan McGovern, commented:

Having arrived in Chicago in 2017 to take up my new position with Music of the Baroque, I was in no doubt about the importance and legacy of Tom Wikman. I got to know Tom over the years and always enjoyed our discussions. His knowledge of music was encyclopedic, and his memory was crystal clear on the finest of details about performances from decades earlier.

I was fascinated to hear how he became a respected “doctor” of voices needing repair, rescuing singers who had strained or damaged their voices and setting them on the right path.

I discovered his enthusiasm for recording—not just the concerts, but the rehearsals—and how he learned so much about bringing out the best in performances by studying the rehearsal and post-concert tapes recorded by Dick and Judy Mintel.

I heard about the origins of one of Music of the Baroque’s best-loved traditions, the Holiday Brass and Choral Concerts, and how his original curatorial stamp of creating a sound world from centuries past endured for decades to come.

I learned firsthand about Tom’s drive to discover the best church acoustics in Chicago to recreate the sound of the Venetian Renaissance or Bach’s Lutheran masterpieces as accurately as possible.

He talked about playing early music on modern instruments and spending hundreds of hours marking up every precise detail on how each note should be played on each instrument.

He reflected on how wonderful it was to work with Elliott Golub, Music of the Baroque’s concertmaster for 35 years, and Everett Zlatoff-Mirsky. One of his favorite memories from his illustrious time on the Music of the Baroque podium is preserved in a recording of “Erbarme dich” from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, featuring mezzo-soprano Isola Jones with Golub performing the violin obbligato.

My final conversation with Tom was in late August this year when he told me how grateful he was for the rich musical life he enjoyed, the opportunities that came his way, and the good fortune he had to have worked with so many great artists. His gratitude and humility were striking. Without Tom Wikman, there would be no Music of the Baroque. The standards of excellence he established over three decades continue to this day in our performances. His legacy is rich and deep.

Baritone Jan Jarvis is the longest-serving member of Music of the Baroque. Tom Wikman was his voice teacher and Jan then joined the chorus of Music of the Baroque, from the second season in 1973 until today. “I was very young at the time,” Jarvis commented. “He brought out a specific sound and rhythmic innovations in our ensemble that no one else was doing. He had a deep knowledge and appreciation for early music. He was quite revolutionary in his approach and instilled great drama and excitement in his performances. His adherence to language was also a distinctive hallmark of his concerts. He insisted on using native-speaking language coaches and was meticulous about pronunciation. He was truly unique. He did things in his own way. I will miss him greatly.”

A memorial service is planned for the spring; details will be announced later.

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