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Omaha Magazine

Farewell, Maestro: Omaha Symphony Marks Centennial While Paying Tribute to Musical Director Who Shaped Its Trajectory

Jun 26, 2020 09:30AM ● By Scott Stewart
now-former Omaha Symphony music director Thomas Wilkins

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Hallmark Channel movies have a certain rhythm to them. The soundtrack cues the viewer on what emotion to feel—even if they forgot the plot of that particular film.

The same holds true for most action flicks, television shows, podcasts, and other artistic works. And, more often than not, that soundtrack features orchestral music. The tempo drives the narrative towards its eventual crescendo. The stopping of the music signals suspense—silence is eerie, and the story can’t go on long without it. 

"They don’t know how much symphonic music has already impacted their lives,” said Ernest Richardson, principal pops conductor of the Omaha Symphony. “They don’t make blockbuster movies with soundtracks that feature rock-and-roll bands or didgeridoo consorts, it is a symphony orchestra, sometimes with a choir, because that is the most powerful, compelling sound that Western art has ever made.”

The Omaha Symphony is preparing to celebrate its centennial this upcoming season, even as the coronavirus pandemic has presented a challenge in the institution’s history. It also plans to honor the community that’s supported it over the decades and its outgoing music director, Thomas Wilkins, who has pushed the symphony to greater heights.

“The arts represent the soul of the community,” said Jennifer Boomgaarden, the symphony’s president and CEO. “When we think about music, we are able to help celebrate. We are able to help connect. We are able to help more. We are able to help a city evolve and find the best in itself. That is one of those really unique powers that music has.”

As music director, Wilkins has guided that evolution. He has been the artistic steward of the symphony, shaping its direction and leading the team that chooses programming and guest performers. He has grown the orchestra’s core to 42 musicians and been the organization’s main conductor. 

Wilkins has served the Omaha Symphony in his role since 2005—making him the longest-tenured music director in the organization’s history.

“It’s really about commitment and passion and believing that those things go into every single thing that you do,” Wilkins said. “That’s the thing that really separates the great artists from the pedestrian.”

Wilkins will step down at the end of the 2020-2021 season, but he won’t leave the orchestra world. He plans to continue in other roles, including working with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, teaching at Indiana University, and guest conducting.

“I am having to say ‘no’ to some things that I want to say ‘yes’ to,” Wilkins said. “I have always believed that after a period of time, an orchestra and a community deserve a new and a different voice.”

Wilkins has spent the last several years commuting from his home in Florida to Omaha; Boston; and Bloomington, Indiana, although he praised the time his family spent living in Omaha and the resources the city has available, including the Holland Performing Arts Center.

“Omaha prides itself on being exceptional,” Wilkins said. “It was just a tremendous blessing for us to be a part of that community, because that community embraced us with open arms. It made it easy to live there, and it made it easy to love living there.”

Danielle Meier, vice president of artistic administration and a double bassist, said Wilkins gives the players the guidance they need and the freedom to be an artist.

“Artistic growth has been something that he has been championing since the moment he stepped on the podium,” Meier said. “He really allows the music to happen.”

Richardson said the maestro is a remarkable person on and off the podium.

“With Thomas, it’s hard to separate the character of the man from the quality of the conductor,” he said. “It’s the depth of who is he as a person and how that is reflected in his musicianship and his leadership as the music director that has shaped this time that he has been here. He’s changed this organization for the better. He’s changed my life for the better.”

Wilkins plans to celebrate his time in Omaha with the 2020-2021 centennial season. He has invited several of his friends to perform, including legendary cellist Yo-Yo Ma, saxophonist Branford Marsalis, and musical group Pink Martini.

The season is scheduled to begin with a free event Sept. 12 at Turner Park in Midtown Crossing, featuring patriotic pieces such as “Stars and Stripes Forever” and cinematic favorites including a selection from the Star Wars films. 

The season includes the orchestra playing along to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Nov. 28-29), Mary Poppins (Feb. 21) and Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (April 30-May 1), as well as a program of popular Broadway tunes (Oct. 17-18), the music of Carousel (Jan. 23-24), and “Escapades for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra” (Sept. 18-19) by John Williams—considered among greatest film composers of all time.

“John Williams cannot just be a movie theater experience but also a Holland Center experience,” Meier said. “Our hundredth anniversary season is a reminder that classical music is for everyone, the symphony is for Williams.”

The symphony makes it a point to bring its sound throughout the community in a variety of educational and outreach efforts, in addition to offering a wide range of programming.

“If you broke the orchestra down and you followed each musician throughout the day, you would not only see them practice and going to rehearsal, but you would also see them working with students,” Meier said. “You would see them going to hospice or Children’s Hospital to play for residents. You would see them performing chamber music. You would see them using the thing that they love the most in order to make Omaha a better place.”

Excellence, education, and collaboration are the core values of the Omaha Symphony, and those values drive its efforts to impact the community, Boomgaarden said. Those values have also been critical to the organization surviving the challenges it has faced in its past.

The Omaha Symphony was founded in 1921, although several civic orchestras preceded it. Operations were suspended in 1932, during the Great Depression, but resumed in 1936. World War II again caused it to pause, but Henry Doorly—along with the Associated Retailers of Omaha and Omaha Junior League—rebuilt the orchestra as a full symphony after the war.

Boomgaarden credits the organization’s ability to adapt for its longevity, along with the support of its community. Those virtues were also on display during the financial crisis of 2008.

Orchestras with better financing serving larger communities than Omaha faltered during the crisis, Wilkins said. Omaha Symphony’s approach was making smart decisions—limiting spending while preserving as many jobs as possible—and it made the organization stronger.

“We were really blessed to be in Omaha because Omaha is a community that believes in giving and believes in supporting the arts,” Wilkins said. “That period solidified the entire organization, including the board of directors and every member of the orchestra, because we knew what a challenge it was. We saw the worst effects in artistic organizations across the country all around us.”

Omaha was well positioned to weather the crisis, in part because it could see the writing on the wall. But knowing a storm is coming doesn’t mean you’re prepared, and Omaha stepped up—once again—to financially support its cultural institutions, including its symphony orchestra.

“A community that is going to support something for 100 years is a pretty special community,” Boomgaarden said.

Richardson has spent the bulk of his career in Omaha, moving here to become a conductor in 1993. He points to the community’s many other successes—its Fortune 500 companies, the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium, and, all the more evident this year, the University of Nebraska Medical Center—that were quietly built over decades of investment.

“We keep building what become leading organizations,” Richardson said. “It is one thing to have the idea, which is a miracle, but it’s another thing to have it sustain over time and have it grow and have Omaha be the center of so many different, but now world-class, organizations. It is an amazing thing, and it’s something that I never take for granted about this community.”

Now the symphony, along with the rest of the community, faces a new crisis: COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, along with associated physical distancing and bans on large public gatherings that accompanied it, which curtailed the symphony’s 2019-2020 season.

This time around, the symphony has some advantages, including technology that allows it to bring music into peoples’ homes directly via its website, livestreams, and social media. The suddenness of the distancing requirements also has fueled pent-up demand for togetherness.

While it’s unclear what long-term effect the coronavirus will have on the symphony, or musical performances more generally, Boomgaarden said the pandemic has forced organizers to think differently.

“Our concert hall right now is quiet, but I would say the organization is very much active and very much alive,” Boomgaarden said. “There’s a need for what we do right now. I think people crave it. I think there’s a hunger for it—this ability to engage in things that are beautiful, things that are thoughtful, and things that connect directly with me as an individual.”

It’s a matter of finding a delivery mechanism. Recently, that’s been social media, recorded concerts, videos by musicians at home, and even a virtual classroom. The symphony has doubled down on its commitment to engage the community and encourage learning about music.

When it does return to recital halls, Wilkins doesn’t believe it will be the same. 

“It may look slightly different than it looked 10 years ago. It may look profoundly different than it did 10 years ago. But it won’t look exactly the same,” Wilkins said.

Richardson believes there will always be a need to gather to enjoy the collaboration among performers and the audience. The city will come together to enjoy the Omaha Symphony once again, he said.

“Humans haven’t gone through this genetic change that suddenly means that we’re no longer social, we no longer care about music,” Richardson said. “Great music prepares the heart and the soul for great truth, and that truth can come in all different sizes and packages, and it can be very specific to the person who is listening to the music. But we will never change our core nature of wanting epiphany, appreciating beauty—that’s not going to change.” 

On June 24, it was announced that conductor Ankush Kumar Bahl has been appointed the next music director of the Omaha Symphony, effective at the beginning of the 2021-2022 season for a term of seven seasons.

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This article first appeared in the June 2020 issue of Omaha Magazine. Click here to subscribe to the print edition.

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