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Thomas Wikman dead at 81

October 14, 2023
Thomas Wikman (photo courtesy of Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago)
Thomas Wikman (photo courtesy of Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago)

Thomas Wikman, 81, the founder and conductor laureate of Music of the Baroque, Chicago, Illinois, died on October 10, 2023. A 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 served a 30-year tenure as choirmaster at Church of the Ascension, Chicago, an Anglo-Catholic church known for its musical and liturgical tradition and the quality of its all-professional choir. 

Born in 1942 in Muskegon, Michigan, Wikman started composing and playing piano at a young age, and by seven 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 at a church in the Chicago suburbs, in 1968 Wikman was offered the position of music director at the Church of St. Paul & the Redeemer, Episcopal, in Hyde Park, Chicago. He offered free voice lessons to help build the choir. 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-1990s, 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. 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 topnotch performances of large-scale 17th- and 18th-century works, many of which were Chicago premieres. Among the highlights were 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 Judgment; Purcell’s Fairy Queen and 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. 

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 Seminary. 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. 

A memorial service is planned for spring 2024. Music of the Baroque dedicated its concerts on October 15–16 to his memory.


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