The Maestro

Omaha Symphony’s Thomas Wilkins and his ever-seeking musical journey

Omaha Symphony Orchestra music director Thomas Wilkins was first inspired to be a conductor at age 8 during a Virginia Symphony Orchestra pops performance in his hometown of Norfolk, Virginia. From the opening rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” he was mesmerized by how the conductor shaped the music. “I came home that day and I don’t know who I said it to, maybe to my mother, but certainly to myself, and certainly during the concert: ‘That’s what I want to do when I grow up.’ It’s interesting that that was before I had really started an instrument.” Raised by a single mom on welfare in the projects of the Jim Crow South, the concert marked Wilkins’ introduction to something outside the gospel, blues and jazz he was steeped in. His mother played organ at storefront black Baptist churches. Music filled the air. Classical music spoke to him at some inner level, but he jammed with musicians, black and white, from different musical genres. Some, like the Wooten brothers, made their marks in the business just as he did. “We all grew up together and hung out together. Many of my friends were not involved in classical music but they were still serious musicians. I was blessed with a little bit of talent as a young kid and so those players tend to gravitate towards each other,” he says. “We would share music on the weekends with each other. I would play for them Tchaikovsky and they would play me Miles Davis, so all of our worlds were being expanded together.” For Wilkins, classical music became a gateway to a new life, opening unimagined vistas, such as completing graduate studies at the prestigious New England Conservatory (NEC) in Boston, Mass. Today, he’s one of perhaps 10 African-American conductors of major orchestras in the country. In addition to his Omaha post, he’s principal guest conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. High in demand as a guest conductor, he’s led the Dallas Symphony, the Houston Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Boston Symphony, the National Symphony (D.C.) and the Atlanta Symphony. Among his mentors is the renowned James DePreist, director of conducting and orchestral studies at the Juilliard School and laureate music director of the Oregon Symphony. Wilkins attended a conducting seminar that DePriest, the preeminent African-American conductor, taught in Oregon. “It was great to be able to see him because he looked like me,” says Wilkins. “But then when I got to meet him and I really got the chance to see him and his life with the orchestra, his relationship with the orchestra, it really sort of informed a lot of my own music directorship — how to treat musicians, how to be involved in the community. I mean, we walked into a restaurant one day and the patrons applauded him. Here was a guy totally involved in the life of his community, and I thought, ‘Man, that’s a big thing.’” Richard Pittman is another influential figure. Then teacher of orchestra conducting at NEC, Pittman challenged the budding maestro to get by on more than a winning personality and conducting flair, qualities the artist has always possessed. A crossroads for Wilkins occurred when he auditioned for graduate school. “I came to my graduate school audition with a lot of arm waving experience and being a leader of people. I had the great fortune of being a student conductor of every ensemble I was in since junior high school. What I hadn’t worked on were really important ear training skills. When I went to take my conducting portion of the audition the orchestra applauded. I was pleasant, I could wave my arms, I was very coordinated, very clear. But when it came to the musical skills test on piano, et cetera — my mother couldn’t afford piano lessons — all of that stuff was just horrible.” Wilkins found his chance at earning a coveted appointment in jeopardy. In the interview portion with Pittman, Wilkins says, “He told me, ‘You’re very charming. I believe you could get any orchestra to do anything you wanted them to do.’ But then he held up my skills test and just shook his head and said, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to take you or not. If I were to judge you based on your conducting alone, I know I would save one of these three spots for you without even seeing the others. But I’m going to have to think about it.’” Wilkins then recalls hearing “the words that changed my life” when told: “‘If I do take you, you’re going to have to work your butt off because if you don’t I will not hesitate to kick you out. I don’t want you to be a charlatan, I want you to be a person of musical and intellectual integrity.’” In short, Wilkins says, Pittman “demanded I be more than charming.” It was a rude awakening for a charismatic young man who wanted nothing but to conduct since childhood. Here he was, he says, “standing on the doorstep of one of the world’s great music conservatories only to be told, ‘You have not worked hard enough.’” Pittman did accept Wilkins into the program and by his second year the protégé was Pittman’s graduate assistant. “Every morning I was at the front door of New England Conservatory at 7 o’clock, two hours of piano, ear training, solfege.” He credits Pittman with pushing him at that crucial time in his life. “He basically shaped my musical integrity, my hunger to learn, really in a sense my moral integrity, how I treat human beings, how I treat orchestra players. So much of that was crafted by him.” The experience confirmed for Wilkins that he would not be deterred or discouraged. He would not give in to what colleague Wynton Marsalis calls the “inner competitor” — that doubting voice within. Wilkins made a conscious decision to quell it. “And you know what, you have to make that decision every day,” he says. The poised, restrained presence Wilkins strikes at the lectern today is one he’s arrived at after years deconstructing his conducting technique. Less is more. After stints with the Richmond Symphony and Florida (Tampa Bay) Orchestra, he joined the Detroit Symphony in 2000 and the Omaha Symphony in 2005. The fact he’s come so far in a realm removed from the cultural norm of a poor Southern black is never lost on him. It’s why he states unequivocally, “Music saved my life as a young boy.” He says part of the blessed mystery of music is that it’s “both life changing and life affirming.” He offers himself as exhibit A: “It’s that mystery of why it can affect a young boy born to a single mother on welfare in a housing project in Norfolk, Virginia. It’s the mystery of why that could completely alter the course of my life.” Too often, he feels, categories segment people along racial-cultural lines, making some music unavailable to certain populations. It’s why he’s taken an active role as a music mentor and educator. Whether advising young black conductors and composers, or leading concerts for minority children or seniors, he enjoys expanding the classical stream. “Fortunately I had the power of music as a driving force in my life,” he says, “but it’s still important I think to see people who look like you. And it doesn’t mean we have to create any sort of artificial vehicle or route to get there, it just means there has to be access.” Before new audiences are invested in the music, they must be invited to participate. “They have to know this is our music, too,” he says, “because it’s everybody’s music. Black people have always been involved in classical music. There were a few blacks from Europe during slavery times who were free and wealthy, they traveled the world, they were huge opera buffs, and in some cases they owned slaves. It was not unusual to see slaves at opera performances or to hear them walk into a booth singing arias. “It’s just silly to believe we only live in the jazz world or in the rap world.” Wilkins, who taught music at North Park University in Chicago, where he met his wife, Sheri-Lee, says it’s important that students learn the classical canon extends beyond Western Europe. “One of the great things about music education is that it really gives kids of all races a broader perspective of what the world looks like because the music that we’re involved with comes from so many different places and so many different cultures,” he says. Wilkins adores American music. He champions the work of, among others, William Grant Still, a pioneering African-American composer and conductor. Pieces by Still and fellow American composers Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein and Andre Previn will be featured in Omaha Symphony masterworks concerts, American Beauty, Wilkins conducts Jan. 21-22 at the Holland Center. “I have long held the belief in this country that in classical music we (America) operate sort of with some weird unfounded second-class citizenship. So the minute we start to bring Americanism into the classical scene we get all weird about it, like it’s cute or it’s catchy or it’s just something for now, when in reality Western European composers always brought their culture into their classical music because they wanted their music to have mass appeal. “There’s a whole school of nationalism in classical music, with composers writing music of their soil and their people, so they brought folk music and folk dances into their classical music. Yet in this country we considered that high art, and people like Bernstein and Gershwin and Copland as not.” He’s unapologetic about embracing American classical works. “You know if jazz or rock ‘n’ roll find its way into classical compositions we have to come up with some fancy word to say, ‘Oh, it’s just a synthesis of American jazz.’ Well, okay, fine. It’s still great music. I am as excited about the classical music of Duke Ellington as I am about the classical music of Beethoven.” Wilkins notes that Still, whose “Symphony No. 1 (Afro-American)” will be performed in American Beauty, is an “easy go-to” for conductors looking to feature black composers since the number of black classical composers is comparatively small. He says Still deserves more than obligatory emblem status. What Wilkins most admires about Still is that he wrote about the American experience. “He’s writing music about his culture, both black culture and American culture, and doing it early. At a time when others were writing essentially European music, Still’s writing contemporary American music, and so I come to Still with great respect because I am a huge proponent of American orchestras being American orchestras. Certainly we have this great Western European tradition we want to uphold and keep, but there’s also this very American music by American composers.” Wilkins designed the American Beauty program to reflect this rich indigenous stew, ranging from Still’s symphony with its homage to blues, spirituals and gospel to Bernstein’s gritty “On the Waterfront Symphonic Suite.” “That’s one of my favorite programs of the season,” Wilkins says, “because of its Americanism and because it covers the gamut of both the European tradition and the American tradition.” He calls Previn’s “Honey and Rue” “stunning.” He’s particularly struck by a gospel-like a cappella movement with text by Toni Morrison. Barber’s Knoxville, “Summer 1915” is evocative of Americana. The soaring music accompanies prose by James Agee that has a woman recounting a summer idyll. The great soprano Leontyne Price once said about the piece: “As a Southerner it expresses everything I know about my roots and about my mama and father and my hometown. You can smell the South.” As a native Southerner himself, Wilkins concurs, yet he sees more universal truths in it as well, saying the pictures the music and words paint run through “the text of experiences we all have.” He says the setting doesn’t have to be the South, but that the work does take him back to lazy summer nights laying on a blanket in the backyard, wondering about the grown up world just beyond his reach. Guest soprano Kisma Jordan will interpret this sweet remembrance of things past. Wilkins says, “There’s this one line at the end about all these grownups who’ve been in her life nurturing her, but she says they did not nor will not ever tell me who I am.” Wilkins says the work took on new meaning for him after he became a father. He and Sheri-Lee are parents of twin, musically gifted daughters, Nicole and Erica. “I thought about the significance and the poignancy of us growing our children up so we can launch them,” says Wilkins, “but allowing them to be both an extension of us and who they discover they are. But they have to discover who they are themselves, themselves. One of our rites of passage in life is getting to a stage of finally figuring out who we are. “I think about myself growing up a BOW (born-out-of-wedlock) kid and not knowing the whole family,” he says, “and how even to this day I’m envious of sons who’ve had great relationships with their fathers because I never really had that. I don’t even know who taught me how to tie a tie, and that saddens me, and yet in my life I want to give my children all the things I didn’t have. Every parent says that, but the thing I want to give them foremost is a father who loves their mother. That sort of explains why that text in the Barber for me personally is so poignant.” Wilkins insists that despite always being an oddity as a black classical conductor “it’s never ever disheartening.” He adds, “Someone asked me once about obstacles and I said, ‘You know when you join the army the first thing you do is go through the obstacle course. The purpose of the obstacle course is not to make you weaker, it’s to make you stronger, so I think I never really considered obstacles to be obstacles to success, only opportunities for me to grow more.’” A key to his makeup, he says, is that “I have always been interested in what I don’t know. I am a natural born learner. My wife makes fun of my because I am probably the only person in the world who keeps a highlighter in the bathroom. I just love learning — that’s kind of been my thing the whole time.” All of which leads back to music’s enigmatic nature. “I think part of my journey is, I get the how about music and its impact, but I don’t understand the why, and I think I am constantly trying to figure out the why. I understand the whole notion of the Harmony of the Spheres. The soothing tones or various harmonies we learn in our culture mean a certain thing. A major harmony as opposed to a minor harmony evokes a certain emotion in us. I get all of that, but I don’t know why. I mean, other than the fact I think it’s a gift from God. “Someone asked James Taylor where his inspiration comes from and he said, ‘I don’t think I ever make up songs, I think I’m just the first guy that gets to hear them.’ So I think all of it is a gift.” Wilkins is reminded of a quote attributed to Beethoven whose meaning roughly translates to: “Music knows us, though we know it not.” Success has not made Wilkins any less eager to learn or any less appreciative of his gift. He’s wise enough now to realize what he doesn’t know. Staying humble and vulnerable helps keep him grounded. “About once every six weeks I still feel like I’m a failure and I’m confronted with the amount of stuff I don’t know. The response can be, ‘OK, I am 54, I’ll just coast for another 15 years.’ Or the response can be, ‘This is a golden opportunity to get stronger in an area where you’re possibly weak.’” His yearning and hunger continue driving him. “Thankfully it doesn’t go away,” he says, “and I think that’s called the essence of life — always doing battle with your inner competitor.” He says his role as music director is “first and foremost about the music,” and adds, “But I also want to walk away having left the orchestra and audience as better human beings.” Yes, he wants his orchestra to reach greater musical heights, but he also wants his players to conduct themselves as “artists and servants to the music” and to “appreciate the greatness of this music and how fortunate we are to be a part of this music.” Part of the process is connecting with the community. “I also want us to never lose contact with the lives of every day people. I want us to come alongside that single mother raising a kid and grab the kid by the other hand and say, ‘We’re going to help you walk through this.’ All we’ve got is music but it’s music that inspires. That’ll end up translating into many other things. “When I do a children’s concert I’m not trying to grow future musicians, I’m trying to grow people that want to change the world, so my education concerts are less about music and more about life.” His next family concert is Wild About Nature Jan. 16. Wilkins will lead the symphony in “kid-friendly classics” as images by nature photographer Thomas Mangelsen are projected on a big screen. Pre-concert lobby activities include an instrument petting zoo and a homemade instrument workshop. Children can also create instruments at a Jan. 15 Omaha Children’s Museum event. At the conclusion of Sunday’s concert, Wilkins will invite children to bring their creations on stage and he will then conduct this homemade-instrument band. For tickets to Wild About Nature and “American Beauty,” call 342.3560 or visit omahasymphony.org.

posted at 01:40 pm
on Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

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