Omaha Symphony’s Thomas Wilkins | Sessions

photo by Chloe Ekberg

by Chance Solem-Pfeifer

As generous and humble with his life story as Thomas Wilkins is, there are moments when you might forget the circles in which the maestro travels.

About an hour into our interview, I asked the Omaha Symphony director how often he thinks about the racial component of the accolades that have seen him featured in the LA Times and Boston Globe.

Rarely, he says. But that being a black man at the highest echelon of a white-dominated industry is something he’s repeatedly discussed with a good friend named Branford Marsalis. Then Thomas excuses himself from the room for the moment.

When he returns, he offers a courteous smile. “Where were we?”

“You were talking about your friend Branford Marsalis.”

Wilkins is the sort of person who, as he puts it, when he wants a bologna sandwich, he wants a bologna sandwich. But as an artist, he’s accrued the level of national and international notoriety that lead to polite debates with Marsalis about the state of racial equity in classical music. It’s a contrast of lifestyles, to be sure, but not a contradiction. After the interview, for instance, it’s Wilkins’ turn to cook dinner at home, and the next day he will direct in a show with actress and singer Katharine McPhee.

On Sept. 20, a stroke of Wilkins’ baton will signal the beginning of the Omaha Symphony season with Brahms and Sibelius, as well as his ninth year as the director of the orchestra. Omaha is Wilkins’ full-time post even though he spends summers as the principal guest conductor for the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and often travels to Boston to feed his passion for music education outreach as the youth and family concerts conductor for the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

For the fifth installment of Sessions, I met with Wilkins in downtown Omaha’s symphony offices to discuss the importance of understanding music’s cultural context, his beloved collection of scores and why “grace” is the key word for any member of a Thomas Wilkins-led orchestra.

Listen here for the full interview:

Tickets for the Omaha Symphony’s 2013-14 season are available here.

Chance Solem-Pfeifer is Hear Nebraska’s staff writer. Thomas Wilkins was the sort of intellect who, when you stumble through a Spiderman quote, will quote the Bible back to you. Reach Chance at

Chance Solem-Pfeifer (@chance_s_p) is a contributing writer at Hear Nebraska, and its former managing editor. Reach him at