My “aha moment” came very early. I was eight years old and went to an orchestra concert with my third grade class. I had never heard an orchestra before, and was fascinated by the sound and the person in front, who seemed to be shaping the sound from the middle of it all. And I thought in that moment that that’s what I wanted to do with my life. It’s remarkable to know that from such a young age, and it really speaks to the power of music.
In fourth grade you had to start with the violin if you wanted to participate in music class, and then the next year you could choose another instrument from the string family. I chose the cello, which became my instrument. I also became interested in the trumpet, and that translated to becoming a tuba player. I would play both cello and tuba all the way through school.
During my junior high and high school days, I was allowed to be the student conductor of the ensemble. That was a huge help and spark, because I was conducting every day. When it was time for me to go to college, I decided to get an undergraduate degree in music education because it was a broader education in music. By graduate school, it was time to really hone in on specifically what you want to do, and for me that was orchestral conducting.
I was the resident conductor at the Detroit Symphony when I came to the Omaha Symphony as a guest conductor. During the course of that time period, there was an opening for music director and I was considered to be one of the candidates. I came back again for a second concert, and they offered me the job. It was the same year that the Holland opened; talk about good timing!
When I came here and met with the staff and players, I discovered it was an orchestra aligned with the things that I believe as it relates to how an orchestra relates to its community. The industry thought that “relevance” was just performing for certain kinds of people groups, but for me, relevance was about how integrally we were involved in the life of the community—not just on the stage, but with who we mentor, teach, and partner with to help grow a community, help children, help the under-served. It was less about putting on a tuxedo and doing a concert and more about becoming better human beings. This was an orchestra that believed those things as well, and it was fantastic to not have to talk anybody into anything.
One of the things that we, from a music standpoint, have embraced is our versatility. You go to some places and orchestras only play Beethoven and Bach, and there’s nothing wrong with that, they have inherent qualities that have allowed them to withstand the test of time, but there are also other artists and other kinds of music that orchestras can play, and we do play, that are off the beaten path. Rock ‘n roll music. Jazz. We don’t want to leave anybody behind, because we believe we can be a source of both entertainment and enlightenment for many different kinds of people with differing artistic tastes.
This city thrives on connectivity and partnerships, and that’s the coolest thing about the arts scene in this town. At the recent Governor’s Awards, I sat in the room thinking about how cool it is that, although we are believed to be a rural state, we value the arts so profoundly that every nook and cranny of this state has some sort of art and embraces it. People came from all over the state for that event. It’s remarkable.
Thanks in part to a lot of different people, the Omaha Symphony is an extremely different organization than it was nine or ten years ago when I got here. It’s thriving while others are barely hanging on; the team we have assembled is incredibly dedicated, and it mirrors the excitement that we all feel about our city and state. It’s awesome that we are a part of all of the great things that are going on in the city.
Thomas Wilkins is music director of the Omaha Symphony, a position he has held since 2005. Last fall, Thomas extended his contract through the 2017/2018 season. He is principal guest conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and holds the Germeshausen Family and Youth Concert Conductor chair with the Boston Symphony. Past positions have included resident conductor of the Detroit Symphony and the Florida Orchestra (Tampa Bay), and associate conductor of the Richmond (Va.) Symphony. Devoted to promoting a life-long enthusiasm for music, Thomas Wilkins brings energy and commitment to audiences of all ages. He resides with his wife Sheri-Lee in Omaha and they are the proud parents of twin daughters, Erica and Nicole.