The Omaha Symphony's Thomas Wilkins
BY CHRIS CHRISTEN
The start of a new arts season brings us to lunch with Omaha Symphony music director Thomas Wilkins. We dine at Mark's Bistro in Dundee – one of the first restaurants he and his wife, Sheri- Lee, tried when they moved to Omaha in 2005. “It's always full of people who attend the symphony,” Wilkins says of Mark's. What does he like on the menu? Smoked chicken lasagna. But for this lunch, he orders beet salad with shrimp.
Q. The Holland Performing Arts Center was brand new when you came to Omaha. How wonderful is that space?
A. “When guest artists step into the concert hall they say, ‘How did you guys get this?' That's a great point of pride for all of us. It's an extremely impressive room. The Holland makes a statement for the community."
Q. You found your life's passion as a third-grader on a field trip to the symphony. So is music a gift or a learned talent?
A. “It's a gift from God, a calling. It's the only way to explain how a little black boy growing up in a housing project (in Norfolk, Va.) with a single mother could grow up to be a classical music symphony conductor.”
Q. Who nurtured your gift?
A. “It began with my elementary school music teacher, who showed me how to write melodies, harmonize them and turn them into songs. The mentoring continued with band and orchestra directors throughout junior high and high school.”
Q. And today?
A. “My wife, Sheri-Lee, is the single person who has been my biggest supporter, encourager, truth teller and fan.”
Q. What's the hardest thing about a conductor's lifestyle?
A. “Replicating real life. We're nomads for several weeks at a time. On the road, my day starts at 8 p.m. After a concert, I'm famished and wide awake until 3 a.m.”
Q. Do you have a fitness routine?
A. “I'm not a health nut, but I do take care of my body. I set an egg timer, put on earplugs and hang upside down on an inversion table for 15 minutes every day when I'm home. Three times a week, I do strength training.”
Q. How is lying upside-down relaxing?
A. “I love silence. Most of us have cluttered our lives so badly that we no longer have margins for downtime and contemplation or rejuvenation. Quiet is the margin that restores us.”
Q. Do you play golf or another sport?
A. “I might be the only husband who plays golf with the total blessing of his wife. She tells me that I have to golf because I work too hard, and a round of golf can't be played in just a half-hour.”
Q. You're always impeccably dressed. Are you a neat freak?
A. “I believe that a junk drawer ought to be organized. I am completely organized and I don't apologize for it. I have an office and closet ‘purge party' with just myself and a garbage can at least once a year.”
Q. Do you have a pre-concert ritual?
A. “I always say a prayer before I walk onstage. I used to pray that I wouldn't screw up. Now I pray that our music will make somebody's life better, and that we'll create a sense of community in the concert hall.”
A. “I have a fetish for shoes and socks. It's so sad. I'm a T.J. Maxx and Marshalls shopper. At least once a year, I spend two to three hours at Century 21 near Ground Zero in New York City. It's T.J. Maxx on steroids.”
Q. Collect anything?
A. “Scale model airplanes. I'm fascinated with air travel. If I had more nerve I'd get my pilot's license.”
Q. Dream dinner party guests?
A. “Puccini, Mahler and Beethoven. If they have to be alive, my best friends, Jeff Gallagher, Tim Bowman, Dan Leeper and Hugh Tulloch – guys who know my warts and love me anyway. If we add Bill Cosby, Branford Marsalis and Condi Rice, the conversation would be phenomenal.”
Q. How close are you and Branford (Marsalis)?
A. “We're always deep in conversation, mostly through texting. We met while doing a concert together … easily 10 years ago. We have great admiration for each other's work. We talk incessantly. In fact, he's texting me right now.”
Q. You're giving back by nurturing kids. What do they tell you?
A. “Last year, a young viola player at a music clinic in Michigan sent me a note saying, ‘You're the only one who has ever believed in me.' For me, music is about inviting people to a place that makes them feel better. That's why I like working with kids.”
Q. Finish these sentences:
I can't live without ... “My music and my wife of 28 years. We met in Chicago at North Park University. She was a senior violinist in the orchestra that I was conducting. We never dated. We were friends, then best friends, then engaged and married.”
My last meal on the planet would be ... “A pork sandwich with Virginia/North Carolina-style barbecue sauce and my homemade collard greens.”
I hope my daughters (twins Erica and Nicole, age 19) ... “Find mates who will love them as much as I love their mother. If not, I hope I am able to stay out of prison.”
More Interesting Tidbits About Thomas Wilkins:
Other regular gigs: Principal guest conductor, Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, Los Angeles; youth and family concerts conductor, Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Education: Bachelor's degree, Shenandoah Conservatory, Winchester, Va., 1978; master's degree in orchestral conducting, New England Conservatory of Music, Boston, 1982.
Winter home: St. Petersburg, Fla., January through March.
Currently reading on tablet: Richard Kriegbaum's “Leadership Prayers”; Simon Sinek's “Start With Why”; Dr. Richard Swenson's “Margin”; and mystery novels by Stuart Woods, Rushmore McKenzie and Robert B. Parker. “I always have five or six books going at one time. I read mostly on airplanes.”
Culinary vices: Dry roasted peanuts; Trader Joe's chocolate-covered almonds; and hog dogs with mustard, onions and chili.
Favorite artist: James Taylor, hands-down.
If I were an actor, I would want the part of ... Dave in the movie of the same name (1993), starring Kevin Kline.
Annual vacation: Door County, Wis. They drive, pick up Sheri-Lee's parents along the way and stay at Wagon Trail Resort in Ellison Bay.
On raising twin daughters: The twins still think their parents are cool. "Daddy is the greatest word in the English language when it comes from a daughter.”
Life-changing musical experience: He was in third grade when he had his first exposure to the symphony. His most vivid memory of that field trip? The sound of the orchestra more than the music the musicians were playing.
Nickname: Thom. “ ‘Thomas' started in Omaha. Everywhere else I'm ‘Thom.' I didn't want my players to call me ‘Maestro,' and ‘Thom' was too informal.”
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