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Maestro Wilkins: ‘We’re seeing a fresh fervor for making and hearing music’

Thomas Wilkins is a busy guy these days, regardless of the setbacks Covid has made on the arts, especially symphony orchestras.

He should know. The former resident conductor of TFO from 1994 to 2002 returns this weekend to lead his old friends in Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Hiawatha: Suite from the Ballet Music and Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, From the New World.

He also waves the baton as music director of the Omaha Symphony in Nebraska, serves as principal conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra in Los Angeles, and is artistic advisor for the Boston Symphony. If that isn’t enough, he teaches conducting at Indiana University’s Jacob School of Music.

This makes him more than qualified to assess the state of affairs in classical music, and how the pandemic has altered the way musicians perform and listeners, well, listen.

“Everything is different now,’’ Wilkins says. “And we keep using the word ‘fluid’ because the protocols and the schedules have changed. It’s all about how adaptable you are.’’

During a normal concert season, Wilkins would lead large ensembles of say, 80 or more musicians, booming the Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky audiences crave. This weekend, Dvorak’s New World Symphony uses about 50 musicians on stage, but other times there might be 20 players doing repertoire rarely touched by large orchestras.

“Now, the musicians are socially distanced,’’ he says.

TFO was one of the nation’s first orchestras to get back into the concert hall at the beginning of the current season – with limited musicians and audiences, as well as a new approach to the music itself. For now, TFO and others are putting aside much of the heavy artillery for a more chamber-like approach. Instead of a Wagner overture, of instance, we might hear a Bach fugue or a Vivaldi concerto.

“Orchestras are learning to be very adaptable very quickly’’ Wilkins adds. “We’re creating a new product, and we’re doing it with a reduced ensemble.’’

Like TFO, the Omaha Symphony reduced the size of its audiences by 80 percent for all concerts, keeping everyone safely apart. But smaller groups aren’t a reflection of a community’s desire to be there. In fact, Wilkins said, Covid has created an even greater need for the connection between musician and listener.

“When we launched the 20-percent audience, they gave us a standing ovation because people are just so hungry for live music,’’ he said. “So, I think we’re seeing a fresh fervor for making and hearing music. And, we’re hearing repertoire we wouldn’t normally hear, composers we wouldn’t have heard before.’’

Members of TFO no doubt will give their guest conductor a round of applause this weekend, as he remains one of the most liked conductors in the orchestra’s history.

“He’s like a warm hug,’’ says violinist Mary Corbett. “Of all the people I’ve worked with in my career, he’s one of the good guys. He has such a genuine love of music and he transmits it so beautifully.”

Dvorak’s New World Symphony
May 1, 2 pm & 8 pm
Mahaffey Theater

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