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Symphony's Maestro Wilkins Anticipates 'Electric' Performance from the Legendary Liza Minnelli

San Diego Symphony

Maestro Thomas Wilkins at the helm during last year's Symphony at Salk. He returns in August for the sixth consecutive year.

It was impossible for Maestro Thomas Wilkins and his colleagues not to talk about Liza Minnelli over dinner. They had witnessed a performance by the stage and screen legend to commemorate her induction into the Hollywood Bowl's Hall of Fame and were still electrified by what they had seen two hours earlier.

"I'll tell you, when Liza steps out on the stage she has the energy of a 14 year-old. I mean she just does not surrender," says Wilkins, principal guest conductor for the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. "She pours all of her heart and soul into her performance. It's really electric and mesmerizing all at the same time."

Friends of the Salk Institute will have the opportunity to experience Minnelli's pizzazz firsthand when she headlines the 15th annual Symphony at Salk — A Concert Under the Stars on Aug. 28. For one night only, Minnelli will bring her larger-than-life spectacle to the Institute's intimate Theodore Gildred Courtyard where she will share the stage with the San Diego Symphony Orchestra, which Wilkins will conduct for the sixth consecutive year.

San Diego Symphony

Liza Minnelli

Aside from the music and the time he gets to spend in sunny San Diego each year, Wilkins says it's the chance to contribute a small part to a worthy cause that keeps him coming back to Salk's annual fundraiser.

"Not only is it a fun event, but the people at Salk are just great human beings. I always walk away inspired and hopeful about the future of medical science," he says. "I love the minute part that I can play in helping to advance their scientific research. And they've really adopted me as part of the Salk family, which is pretty cool."

Wilkins is in his third season with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and continues his role as music director for the Omaha Symphony. He stepped down last year as the resident conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra after nine seasons.

"At this stage in my career, I end up guest conducting so many weeks out of the year I just couldn't give enough time to the Detroit Symphony for me to warrant staying on staff," says Wilkins, who has developed into one of the most sought after guest conductors in the United States during his more than 20-year career. "And quite frankly, it's really time for some young whippersnapper to come along and have an opportunity."

With each passing year as Symphony at Salk's guest conductor, Wilkins has concluded that there is little difference between his work in music and that of the scientists in the Institute's laboratories. Both disciplines are focused on the same goal: to improve the human condition.

"The classical music genre represents some of the greatest achievements of mankind like any scientific endeavor," he explains. "You think of the lasting power of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and 200 years later it is still current and appropriate to our lives.

"Much of classical music deals with this indelible human spirit when faced with some sort of obstacle or challenge. And to the extent that people receive this music and understand the journey that composers take us on, the aim is that we do indeed walk away as better human beings," Wilkins says. "And clearly that is what they are doing scientifically at Salk as well."