The Omaha Symphony agreed with its music director, Thomas Wilkins, to a three-year contract extension through the 2017-18 season.
“It feels terrific,” Wilkins said of the agreement, his third contract extension since joining the symphony in 2005. “It always feels good to know you're wanted.”
That feeling goes both ways, according to Omaha Symphony president and chief executive officer James Johnson, who admitted he breathed a sigh of relief over the new contract. Johnson declined to reveal Wilkins' new salary. The symphony's most recent filing with the Internal Revenue Service for fiscal year 2011 listed Wilkins' annual pay at $146,825.
“Thomas is in great demand,” Johnson said. “He is somebody who holds incredibly impressive spots with these major institutions like the Boston Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and so I just feel as though this is wonderful news for Omaha, and especially good news for the Omaha Symphony.”
Johnson saw that demand firsthand last season when he attended a concert in another city, where Wilkins was debuting as a guest conductor. It so happened that symphony was in the hunt for a music director of its own, and the post-concert scene back stage left an impression.
“There were, no exaggeration, 40 musicians lined up outside his dressing room door,” Johnson said. “Each one telling him how wonderful the week was when he was there and (asking) would he come be their music director.”
Johnson said he knew Wilkins was committed to Omaha, but the experience added some urgency to the renewal process.
“Meeting Thomas and working with him has been one of the pleasures of my career,” he said. “Someone who has never been to the symphony, Thomas has a way of getting them excited about the music.”
Wilkins was hired as music director heading into the 2005-2006 season, as the symphony prepared to move into the then-new Holland Performing Arts Center. He conducts the symphony in MasterWorks concerts and other select programs throughout the season. From the moment he took on the role, Wilkins made community outreach a priority, determined to bring new audiences to classical music. Now in his ninth season, with a handful of musicians hired during his tenure, he said he feels his direction has taken shape.
“The result, over the period of a time, makes it feel like my orchestra,” he said.
Omaha Symphony concertmaster Susanna Perry Gilmore joined the orchestra in 2011, after 15 seasons with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra.
“From the moment I got here, I felt there was a tremendous warmth in the organization, between the musicians and Thomas,” she said. “I feel like everyone is rowing in the same direction, which is great for this art form that is all about being in harmony.”
From a musician's perspective, continuity brings with it a measure of relief, Gilmore said. But in this case, it comes with the excitement of knowing Wilkins will be the one leading the symphony “on and off the podium” for the foreseeable future.
“He's just one of these commanding presences that makes everybody want to follow his lead, his example,” she said. “He's a very inspiring person.”
In addition to his duties as music director in Omaha, Wilkins serves as the principal guest conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and conductor of family and youth concerts at the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He regularly appears as a guest conductor throughout the country, including appearances with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Indianapolis Symphony, the San Diego Symphony, and the New Jersey Symphony, among several others.
When not traveling, Wilkins makes his home in Omaha with his wife, Sheri-Lee. The couple have twin daughters, both studying music at Northern Illinois University.
Wilkins next conducts the Omaha Symphony this Friday and Saturday in a program featuring Beethoven's “Pastorale” symphony and Gulda's “Cello Concerto.”