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Omaha Symphony Maestro Thomas Wilkins and His Ever-Seeking Musical Journey

January 12, 2011 4 comments

This is a cover-length story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) that profiles Omaha Symphony Orchestra music director Thomas Wilkins, who is also a conductor with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and recently ended a decade-long tenure with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.  Wilkins is a poised, still, yet passionate presence at the podium.  Away from the stage, he’s a gentle, sensitive soul with a ready smile and an authentic interest in communicating his love of music.  I very much enjoyed meeting him and consider it a privilege tell some of his journey through life and music.

 

 

 

Omaha Symphony Maestro Thomas Wilkins and His Ever-Seeking Musical Journey

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Omaha Symphony Orchestra music director Thomas Wilkins was first inspired to be a conductor at age 8 during a Virginia Symphony Orchestra pops performance in his hometown of Norfolk (Va.). Right from the opening rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” he was mesmerized by how the conductor shaped the music.

“I came home that day and I don’t know who I said it to, maybe to my mother, but certainly to myself, and certainly during the concert: ‘That’s what I want to do when I grow up.’ It’s interesting that that was before I had really started an instrument.”

Raised by a single mom on welfare in the projects of the Jim Crow South, the concert marked Wilkins’ introduction to something outside the gospel, blues and jazz he was steeped in. His mother played organ at storefront black churches. Black music filled the air where he lived. Even though classical music spoke to him at some inner core level, he remained immersed in his roots. He jammed with cats, black and white, from different musical strains. Some, like the Wooten brothers, went on to make their marks in the business just as he did.

“We all grew up together and hung out together. Many of my friends were not involved in classical music but they were still serious musicians. I was blessed with a little bit of talent as a young kid and so those players tend to gravitate towards each other,” he says. “We would share music on the weekends with each other. I would play for them Tchaikovsky and they would play for me Miles Davis, so all of our worlds were being expanded together.”

For Wilkins, classical music became a gateway to a new life, opening unimagined vistas, such as completing graduate studies at the prestigious New England Conservatory (NEC) in Boston, Mass.

Today, he’s one of perhaps 10 African-American conductors of major orchestras in the country. In addition to his Omaha post, he’s principal guest conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. High in demand as a guest conductor, he’s led the Dallas Symphony, the Houston Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Boston Symphony, the National Symphony (D.C.) and the Atlanta Symphony.

He was the Detroit Symphony’s resident conductor for a decade.

Among the mentors in his life is the renowned James DePreist, director of conducting and orchestral studies at the Juilliard School and laureate music director of the Oregon Symphony. Wilkins attended a conducting seminar that DePriest, the preeminent African-American conductor, taught in Oregon.

“It was great to be able to see him because he looked like me,” says Wilkins, “but then when I got to meet him and I really got the chance to see him and his life with the orchestra, his relationship with the orchestra, it really sort of informed a lot of my own music directorship — how to treat musicians, how to be involved in the community. I mean, we walked into a restaurant one day and the patrons applauded him. Here was a guy totally involved in the life of his community, and I thought, Man, that’s a big thing.”

Richard Pittman is another influential figure. Then teacher of orchestra conducting at NEC, Pittman challenged the budding maestro to get by on more than a winning personality and conducting flair, qualities the artist has always possessed. A crossroads for Wilkins occurred when he auditioned for graduate school.

“I came to my graduate school audition with a lot of arm waving experience and being a leader of people. I had the great fortune of being a student conductor of every ensemble I was in since junior high school. What I hadn’t worked on were really important ear training skills. When I went to take my conducting portion of the audition the orchestra applauded. I was pleasant, I could wave my arms, I was very coordinated, very clear. But when it came to the musical skills test on piano, et cetera — my mother couldn’t afford piano lessons — all of that stuff was just horrible.”

Wilkins found his chance at earning a coveted appointment in jeopardy.

In the interview portion with Pittman, Wilkins says, “He told me, ‘You’re very charming. I believe you could get any orchestra to do anything you wanted them to do.’ But then he held up my skills test and just shook his head and said, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to take you or not. If I were to judge you based on your conducting alone I know I would save one of these three spots for you without even seeing the others. But I’m going to have to think about it.’”

Wilkins then recalls hearing “the words that changed my life” when told: “‘If I do take you you’re going to have work your butt off because if you don’t I will not hesitate to kick you out. I don’t want you to be a charlatan, I want you to be a person of musical and intellectual integrity.’” In short, Wilkins says, Pittman “demanded I be more than charming.”

It was a rude awakening for a charismatic young man who wanted nothing else but to conduct since childhood. Here he was, he says, “standing on the doorstep of one of the world’s great music conservatories only to be told, “You have not worked hard enough.” Pittman did accept Wilkins into the program and by his second year the protege was Pittman’s graduate assistant. He worked hard.

“Every morning I was at the front door of New England Conservatory at 7 o’clock, two hours of piano, ear training, solfege.”

He credits Pittman with pushing him at that crucial time in his life.

“He basically shaped my musical integrity, my hunger to learn, really in a sense my moral integrity, how I treat human beings, how I treat orchestra players. So much of that was crafted by him.”

The experience confirmed for Wilkins that he would not be deterred or discouraged. He would not give into what colleague Wynton Marsalis calls the “inner competitor” — that doubting voice within. Wilkins made a conscious decision to quell it.

“And you know what, you have to make that decision every day,” he says.

The poised, restrained presence Wilkins strikes at the podium today is one he’s arrived at after years deconstructing his conducting  technique. Less is more. After stints with the Richmond (Va.) Symphony and Florida (Tampa Bay) Orchestra, he joined the Detroit Symphony in 2000 and the Omaha Symphony in 2005.

 

 

 

 

The fact he’s come so far in a realm so far removed from the cultural norm of a poor Southern black is never lost on him. It’s why he states unequivocally, “Music saved my life as a young boy.” He says part of the blessed mystery of music is that it’s “both life changing and life affirming.” He offers himself as exhibit A: “It’s that mystery of why it can affect a young boy born to a single mother on welfare in a housing project in Norfolk Va. It’s the mystery of why that could completely alter the course of my life.”

Too often, he feels, categories segment people along racial-cultural lines, thereby making some music unavailable to certain populations. It’s why he’s taken an active role as a music mentor and educator. Whether advising young black conductors and composers seeking his counsel or leading concerts for minority children or seniors, he enjoys expanding the classical stream.

“Fortunately I had the power of music as a driving force in my life,” he says, “but it’s still important I think to see people who look like you. And it doesn’t mean we have to create any sort of artificial vehicle or route to get there, it just means there has to be access.”

Before new audiences are invested in the music, they must be invited to participate.

“They have to know this is our music, too,” he says, “because it’s everybody’s music. Black people have always been involved in classical music. There were a few blacks from Europe during slavery times who were free and wealthy, they traveled the world, they were huge opera buffs, and in some cases they owned slaves. It was not unusual to see slaves at opera performances or to hear them walk into a booth singing arias.

“It’s just silly to believe we only live in the jazz world or in the rap world.”

Wilkins, who taught music at North Park University in Chicago, where he met his wife, Sheri-Lee, says it’s important students learn the classical canon extends beyond Western Europe.

“One of the great things about music education is that it really gives kids of all races a broader perspective of what the world looks like because the music that we’re involved with comes from so many different places and so many different cultures,” he says.

Wilkins adores American music. He champions the work of, among others, William Grant Still, a pioneering African-American composer and conductor. Pieces by Still and fellow American composers Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein and Andre Previn will be featured in Omaha Symphony masterworks concerts, American Beauty, Wilkins conducts Jan. 21-22 at the Holland Performing Arts Center.

“I have long held the belief in this country that in classical music we (America) operate sort of with some weird unfounded second-class citizenship. So the minute we start to bring Americanism into the classical scene we get all weird about it, like it’s cute or it’s catchy or it’s just something for now, when in reality Western European composers always brought their culture into their classical music because they wanted their music to have mass appeal.

“There’s a whole school of nationalism in classical music, with composers writing music of their soil and their people, so they brought folk music and folk dances into their classical music. Yet in this country we considered that high art and people like Bernstein and Gershwin and Copland as not.”

He’s unapologetic about embracing American classical works.

“You know if jazz or rock ‘n’ roll find its way into classical compositions we have to come up with some fancy word to say, ‘Oh, its just a synthesis of American jazz.’ Well, OK, fine. It’s still great music. I am as excited about the classical music of Duke Ellington as I am about the classical music of Beethoven.”

Wilkins notes that Still, whose Symphony No. 1 (Afro-American) will be performed in American Beauty, is an “easy go-to” for conductors looking to feature black composers since the number of black classical composers is comparatively small. He says Still deserves more than obligatory emblem status.

“The more I got to know about William Grant Still the more he became an inspiration. He had a very distinguished career when you factor in the time period in which he operated and being the first black composer to have a symphony both commissioned and performed by a major orchestra and the first black music director to conduct a major orchestra. He also worked in Hollywood. He always found a way of making a living in this business, to have some sort of artistic output and creative outlet.”

What Wilkins most admires about Still is that he wrote about the American experience.

“He’s writing music about his culture, both black culture and American culture, and doing it early. At a time when others were writing essentially European music, Still’s writing contemporary American music, and so I come to Still with great respect because I am a huge proponent of American orchestras being American orchestras. Certainly we have this great Western European tradition we want to uphold and keep, but there’s also this very American music by American composers.”

Wilkins designed the American Beauty program to reflect this rich indigenous stew, ranging from Still’s symphony with its homage to blues, spirituals and gospel to Bernstein’s gritty On the Waterfront Symphonic Suite.

“That’s one of my favorite programs of the season,” Wilkins says, “because of its Americanism and because it covers the gamut of both the European tradition and the American tradition.”

He calls Previn’s Honey and Rue “stunning.” He’s particularly struck by a gospel-like a cappella movement with text by Toni Morrison.

Barber’s Knoxville, Summer 1915 is evocative of Americana. The soaring music accompanies prose by James Agee that has a woman recounting a summer idyll. The great soprano Leontyne Price once said about the piece: “As a Southerner it expresses everything I know about my roots and about my mama and father and my hometown. You can smell the South.” As a native Southerner himself, Wilkins concurs, yet he sees more universal truths in it as well, saying the pictures the music and words paint run through “the text of experiences we all have.” He says the setting doesn’t have to be the South, but that the work does take him back to lazy summer nights laying on a blanket in the backyard, wondering about the grown up word just beyond his reach.

Guest soprano Kisma Jordan will interpret this sweet remembrance of things past.

Wilkins says, “There’s this one line at the end about all these grownups who’ve been in her life nurturing her, but she says they did not nor will not ever tell me who I am.” Wilkins says the work took on new meaning for him after he became a father. He and Sheri-Lee are parents of twin, musically-gifted daughters, Nicole and Erica.

“I thought about the significance and the poignancy of us growing our children up so we can launch them,” says Wilkins, “but allowing them to be both an extension of us and who they discover they are. But they have to discover who they are themselves, themselves. One of our rites of passage in life is getting to a stage of finally figuring out who we are.

“I think about myself growing up a BOW (born-out-of-wedlock) kid and not knowing the whole family,” he says, “and how even to this day I’m envious of sons who’ve had great relationships with their fathers because I never really had that. I don’t even know who taught me how to tie a tie, and that saddens me, and yet in my life I want to give my children all the things I didn’t have. Every parent says that, but the thing I want to give them foremost is a father who loves their mother. That sort of explains why that text in the Barber for me personally is so poignant.”

 

 

 

 

Wilkins insists that despite always being an oddity as a black classical conductor “it’s never ever disheartening.” He adds, “Someone asked me once about obstacles and I said, ‘You know when you join the army the first thing you do is go through the obstacle course. The purpose of the obstacle course is not to make you weaker, it’s to make you stronger, so I think I never really considered obstacles to be obstacles to success, only opportunities for me to grow more.”

A key to his makeup, he says, is that “I have always been interested in what I don’t know. I am a natural born learner. My wife makes fun of my because I am probably the only person in the world who keeps a highlighter in the bathroom. I just love learning — that’s kind of been my thing the whole time.”

All of which leads back to music’s enigmatic nature.

“I think part of my journey is, I get the how about music and it’s impact, but I don’t understand the why, and I think I am constantly trying to figure out the why. I understand the whole notion of the Harmony of the Spheres. The soothing tones or various harmonies we learn in our culture mean a certain thing. A major harmony as opposed to a minor harmony evokes a certain emotion in us. I get all of that, but I don’t know why. I mean, other than the fact I think it’s a gift from God.

“Someone asked James Taylor where his inspiration comes from and he said, ‘I don’t think I ever make up songs, I think I’m just the first guy that gets to hear them.’ So I think all of it is a gift.”

Wilkins is reminded of a quote attributed to Beethoven whose meaning roughly translates to: “Music knows us, though we know it not.”

 

 

 

 

Success has not made Wilkins any less eager to learn or any less appreciative of his privileged gift. He’s wise enough now to realize what he doesn’t know. Staying humble and vulnerable helps keep him grounded.

“About once every six weeks I still feel like I’m a failure and I’m confronted with the amount of stuff I don’t know. The response can be, OK, I am 54, I’ll just coast for another 15 years. Or the response can be, This is a golden opportunity to get stronger in an area where you’re possibly weak.”

His yearning and hunger continue driving him.

“Thankfully it doesn’t go away,” he says, “and I think that’s called the essence of life — always doing battle with your inner competitor.”

He says his role as music director is “first and foremost about the music,” adding, “But I also want to walk away having left the orchestra and audience as better human beings.” Yes, he wants his orchestra to reach greater musical heights, but he also wants his players to conduct themselves as “artists and servants to the music” and to “appreciate the greatness of this music and how fortunate we are to be a part of this music.”

Part of the process is connecting with the community.

“I also want us to never lose contact with the lives of every day people. I want us to come alongside that single mother raising a kid and grab the kid by the other hand and say, ‘We’re going to help you walk through this.’ All we’ve got is music but it’s music that inspires. That’ll end up translating into many other things.

“When I do a children’s concert I’m not trying to grow future musicians, I’m trying to grow people that want to change the world, so my education concerts are less about music and more about life.”

His next family concert is Wild About Nature at 2 p.m. on Jan. 16 at the Holland. Wilkins will lead the symphony in “kid-friendly classics” as images by nature photographer Thomas Mangelsen are projected on a big screen.

Pre-concert lobby activities include an instrument petting zoo and a homemade instrument workshop. Children can also create instruments at a Jan. 15 Omaha Children’s Museum event. At the conclusion of Sunday’s concert, Wilkins will invite children to bring their creations on stage and he will then conduct this homemade instrument band.

For tickets to this program and to American Beauty, call 342-3560 or visit http://www.omahasymphony.org.

Marcia Hinkle and Bill Sprague are the Omaha Symphony Orchestra’s Golden Anniversary Players

August 3, 2010 3 comments

Cantigas musicians

Image via Wikipedia

Something I would like to do more of is luxuriate in the warm cascade of live symphonic music.  My girlfriend and I happened to attend an Omaha Symphony program when I read in the program that two orchestra players were celebrating 50 years each with the organization.  That sparked my doing the following article. Violinist Marcia Hinkle and French Horn player Bill Sprague proved gracious subjects and I am confident you will find them as charming as I did.  My story originally appeared in the New Horizons.

 

Marcia Hinkle and Bill Sprague are the Omaha Symphony Orcheste’s Golden Anniversary Players

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

 

Fifty years doing the same job, for the same organization, is a rare feat anymore. That’s why when Omaha Symphony Orchestra players Marcia Hinkle and Bill Sprague  marked their 50th anniversaries last spring it was cause for celebration. The musicians were recognized on a flyer in the program for the 2008-2009 season’s final Masterworks concert at the Holland Performing Arts Center. The veteran second violinist and French Horn player, respectively, were singled out prior to the performance of Mahler’s 5th, taking bows before an appreciative crowd. The pair were also feted at parties following the concert.

Omaha natives Hinkle and Sprague took singular paths reaching this golden anniversary. They’re believed to be only the second and third musicians to ever notch the milestone with the orchestra. Neither has plans to retire. Music is too much a part of their lives to imagine life without it.

They’ve seen the evolution from a community-based, part-time orchestra to one with a full-time professional core. Along the way, the Symphony’s grown in terms of artistry, staff, budget, schedule and outreach. They’ve served six music directors and survived numerous board turnovers. They’ve performed in all manner of venues, from the Holland to the Music Hall to the Joslyn to the Orpheum to Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum to Peony Park’s Royal Grove to Memorial Park to Lewis & Clark Landing to Gene Leahy Mall. They’ve weathered wind, rain, bugs, egos, makeovers, strikes.

Then there are the legendary guest artists they’ve shared the stage with. Performers Van Cliburn, Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma and conductors Arthur Fiedler, Howard Hanson, Robert Shaw. The list goes on and on.

Marcia Hinkle: Still An All-American Girl After All These Years

In a simpler time when schools honored students for their combined character, personality, appearance, academics and extracurricular activities, Marcia Hinkle was named Best All-Around Girl at Omaha North High School. “I was in a lot of things” she said. “I was the boys sports editor, I played tennis, I played in the orchestra, I was the drum majorette for the band and I was a decent student.”

It was the mid-1950s and the striking, athletic, talented, vivacious blond embodied the wholesome qualities of the All-American Girl Next Door. Think Sandra Dee. She  even won the title of Miss Omaha after a fraternity put her up for it, making appearances during the city’s centennial celebration year (1954).

As a young woman Hinkle was the spitting image of Doris Day’s or Donna Reed’s Goodie-Good screen personas. She was the picture-perfect wife, mother and homemaker who still found time to play tennis, to volunteer — with the Junior League, the PTA, the Omaha Community Playhouse, among others. Where the similarity stopped is that Marcia was also a serious symphony musician. Then, as now, that meant sacrificing some family time in order to fulfill the demands of busy concert and rehearsal schedules and performing in string ensembles (the Myron Cohen and Midlands String Quartets). She began a second career as a real estate agent in the ‘70s that she continues today.

“I’m not absolutely dynamic or terrific at any particular thing,” she said, “but I’m pretty good at quite a few things.”

Not all was so picture-perfect. She and her first husband ended up divorcing after their three kids were grown. Through a mutual friend she then met Don Hinkle, her husband of nearly three decades years now. The two had actually gone on a blind date together in college but had not seen each other since. When they did, both were middle-aged, divorced, single, soon-to-be empty-nesters unsure if they wanted to take the plunge again but certain they were right for each other. Besides, he was a fellow real estate agent and tennis nut. They became partners in business and in life. Their CBS Home Real Estate office has flourished during their marriage.

“We’ve been multi-million dollar producers for 30 years,” she said proudly. Being a people-person is a must in that game. “I enjoy people,” she confirmed.

Marcia and Don are still actively engaged in helping put folks in homes, including some of her symphony colleagues — “I just sold one to another violinist.” Any marriage that can survive decades as realtors together must be solid. “We’ve just always gotten along together,” she said. “We enjoy working together. He’s not a huge symphony-goer. He loves the Pops and the lighter classics. But I haven’t gotten him to be a total die-hard for the masterworks. We also had the tennis connection.”

They played mixed doubles for years. “He would still be playing but he ended up with two new hips and then he ended up with bone cancer,” she said. When not caring for Don and attending to her symphony gigs, she’s likely tending her home or playing a match. “I love it. I still play. I’m in a ladies tennis league that’s been going probably 42 years now. There’s still quite a few of us playing that were in that original group. We play a competitive level of tennis once or twice a week. It’s great exercise. It’s a wonderful lifetime sport.”

The couple share a comfortable home in northwest Omaha’s Sunny Slope neighborhood. She’s as busy as ever these days between the symphony, her tennis and her grandkids but her and Don’s life has changed in one significant way recently — his cancer. It’s meant making certain accommodations, but they’re not letting the disease stand in the way of enjoying each other.

 

 

Marcia Hinkle, second from left, and the Midlands String Quartet

 

 

Through it all, music’s been the one constant in Marcia’s life, though it’s not something that’s consumed her. By some measures, she even got a late start. She was in 3rd grade when she began playing the tonette or song flute. In the 5th grade it was recommended she try the violin. It was as if the stringed instrument and her were made for each other. Still, she wasn’t completely carried away. “At one point I told my parents, ‘I don’t want to play,’ and they said, ‘OK.’ So I put my instrument down and two or three weeks later I decided I really did. That was sort of the turning point.”

An only child, Marcia was the apple of her Storz Brewery business manager father, Bill Wetzler, and her homemaker mother. Her dad started her playing tennis. She got her strokes down hitting against the garage door of her family’s home on Belvedere Blvd. across from Miller Park. She played on the North High girls squad. She went on to win state club titles.

Music was just another activity but as she progressed it became more than that. She was concertmaster with both the North High orchestra, which enjoyed a fine reputation, and with the All-City Youth Orchestra.

“I had a really fine high school teacher named Sam Thomas. He was a violinist. He coached and helped prepare me and a lot of other students for the music profession. He was very encouraging. He was one of my mentors.”

Surprisingly, she did not major in music at college. Instead, she majored in education. She was actually interested in studying law but the restrictive times  discouraged her from pursuing such a male-centric field.

She tarried with the piano in college but, she said, “I had a horrid time. I couldn’t read bass clef.” She regrets not having learned piano first and then violin. She doesn’t recommend doing it “backwards” the way she did. After college she worked as an Omaha Public Schools 3rd and 6th grade teacher for two-plus years. Her husband Don also taught for a time.

Following her classroom gig she got hired by the Joslyn Art Museum as program hostess, a job that entailed supervising various events.

Music was always in her life. “I just wanted to play,” she said. “I liked performing. I didn’t have aspirations of being a soloist on the New York stage or anything. I really enjoyed playing in the orchestra setting. That was my forte. I didn’t like solo work that much. I suppose my passion honestly developed when I did more of the masterworks and the classics with the symphony. You know, they’re beautiful and thrilling to play as well as listen to, and they’re challenging, and that’s fun, too.”

She said she long ago found her niche playing as part of ensembles rather than soloing. “I suppose it’s gotten to be a comfort level over the years. If you’re going to be a soloist and enjoy it I think you have to do it pretty often to really not get uptight and nervous. I enjoy so much more being in an orchestra and there’s a talent to being an orchestra musician versus a soloist. Not every solo performer can be an orchestral person. Probably a lot of orchestral players can be soloists. I also love the people. I’ve sold a lot of them houses. A lot of them I call ‘my kids.’”

The man responsible for bringing her to the Omaha Symphony was its then-music director, Richard Duncan, one of her teachers at UNO, whose orchestra she played in. “I didn’t study with him until about my junior year in college,” said Marcia. “I worked with him a couple years and he was the one that encouraged me.” She recalled Duncan as “a very fine violinist” and taskmaster. “He wanted you to be a very diligent student, which became difficult because I was very widespread by my senior year in college.” Within a short span her appendix was removed, she married, she earned her degree, she began teaching and she joined the Symphony. All at age 20. Then came her three children.

Her new taskmaster became Joseph Levine, who replaced Duncan as music director. Even before the demands of a family, a home and a day job she had trouble making time for as much practice as her conductors expected. Her saving grace was being a quick study, “I always was blessed with an ability to sight read well, which they knew, but they still thought I should be spending more time practicing.” Once in the orchestra intensive attention to her craft became paramount. “It takes a tremendous commitment,” she said. So she found ways to fit in all the prep and performances around her many other responsibilities. Still, there were and are sacrifices she’s had to make in her personal life. Her loved ones perhaps didn’t always like it but they understood.

“I feel extremely blessed. My family’s been really wonderful in letting me do this. Your family has to be supportive or you can’t do it. You can’t be gone the hours you’re gone. You end up missing birthdays and…that’s just what you do. I mean, you do that with a lot of professions, but with the symphony the show always must goes on. You’re there and you do it and it doesn’t much matter what else it is. This takes priority. Like I love tennis, but when I’m doing a lot of music I don’t do tennis. Music is my first love. I love playing. I guess it’s just something that happens to you and I’m just grateful for everything I’ve been able to do in music.”

Over these 50 years she’s nary missed a scheduled performance, with the exception of a rare illness. She still eats the same preconcert meal she always has  — a home cooked hamburger — and still plays the same violin she came to the symphony with a half-century ago. In fact, it’s the same one she’s primarily played since age 11. For that reason alone, it holds much sentimental value.

“I’ve had it ever since 8th grade,” said Marcia. “It’s a pretty nice violin. It was supposedly an Enrico Rocca-made instrument but I was told by someone that was not correct. Somewhere, years back, I had a certificate (of authenticity), but it’s long disappeared. I’m hoping one of my grandchildren will play it and I’ll pass it onto them. We’ll see. It’s served me well.”

She said her parents purchased it from Nielsen Violin Shop in Omaha, a third-generation store where such world-class string players as Isaac Stern, Fritz Kreisler and Midori have come to peruse its high-caliber instruments, bows and accessories.

Her violin’s unchanged but the orchestra she plays in is quite different than the one she joined 50 years ago. Besides wholesale changeovers in personnel, it’s gone from second-rate to first-class. “It’s a tremendous difference,” she said. “The repertoire we play is much more challenging, the level of performance is much better, the qualifications of the musicians are much better. I mean, there were some really talented musicians in the past but we have extremely talented people (across the board now). We just have experienced a lot of growth.”

That growth did not come without a cost. In the mid-’70s music director Thomas Briccetti and the Symphony board moved away from an orchestra drawn almost exclusively from community members to a core group drawn from the best players in the world. At least the best artists Omaha could afford to attract. That meant demoting some existing players and letting others go. Some left on their own, feeling insulted or betrayed their many years of service were not appreciated.

“It was a tough time,” she said. “That was a difficult change. Kind of heart-breaking in a way. We lost some people that were really good musicians that I wish would have stayed with us.”

There was also a musicians strike around then that brought long simmering tensions between artists and management to a head. In its wake she formed the Omaha Symphony Committee, a musicians group to voice their interests. “We really needed to be able to sit down and talk about things and the committee did sit down with board members. It was a very good thing.” So good that the differences were resolved and the committee still exists today as a vehicle for airing grievances, settling disputes and keeping the lines of communication open.

“You don’t want to get involved in something like a strike, You want to be able to talk about things in good discussions before the problem is too big.” She said there hasn’t been an outright strike since, although there’s been a work stoppage. “We missed a few concerts,” she said.

Marcia’s pro-active efforts reflect her conciliatory nature. “I don’t like to be negative, I like for people to be happy, especially when you’re making music. You don’t make beautiful music when you’re not feeling somewhat beautiful. It’s a lot more fun when everybody’s happy about what they’re doing.” One perpetual complaint that hasn’t changed, she added, is the pay symphony players receive.

Fifty years and counting and she’s still looking forward to the next season. “It’s been a great joy to play with the Symphony and to be a part of that organization. I can’t believe it’s been that long. I just kind of keep going. I don’t stop and think about it. I’m very happy to be here today and hopefully I’ll be here tomorrow.” She said she’s certain she’ll know when it’s time to step down. Until that time comes, however, she said she plans to continue “as long as I’m qualified, as long as I’m doing my job the way it should be done.”

A life without playing music is inconceivable. “It would be hard. I’m not sure I could just sit and listen. I just don’t know,” she said. “I’m so used to performing it. That’s what I enjoy most.”

Bill Sprague — Tinker, Teacher, Player, Cat

For almost as long as he can remember Bill Sprague’s had an affinity for music and tinkering with things. At 64 he’s still making music as an Omaha Symphony French Horn player and he’s still a Mr. Fix It specializing in instrument repair at his The Horn Works store in Ralston, Neb.

It’s not an exaggeration to say Sprague’s played with the symphony since coming of age. His unlikely start began as a 14 year-old Omaha Benson High School freshman. He was already well advanced despite having picked up the horn for the first time only five years earlier, in 4th grade. He took piano lessons before that at the insistence of his mother, a pianist who also taught the instrument. He was an only adopted child. His mother wisely didn’t try to instruct her son but even the private teacher she hired couldn’t get Bill to embrace the keyboards. “It did nothing for me,” he said. But the first time he laid sight on that shiny horn, he was smitten.

His horn work was confined to school lessons that first year and then his folks got him a private instructor, Don Swaggard, who played in the Symphony. Bill credits much of his early development to Swaggard, who still teaches today.

“I progressed, I wouldn’t say phenomenally quickly. I got from a beginner’s point to a reasonably good player by junior high,” said Bill. “Being in all city bands and orchestras and all those things I was usually at the top of the section or pretty close to the top. I got to the place where I was feeling pretty good about myself.”

Away from music, Bill learned what it meant to be meticulous working in the stock room at the family’s Sprague Pharmacy in Benson. He was also getting skilled using his dad’s woodworking tools, doing refinishing projects, and anything to do with cars. As a teen he worked at a Chevrolet auto dealership installing hubcaps, carpet, radios, air conditioners, you name it, on new arrivals.

By ‘58 Symphony music director Joseph Levine began a training orchestra of this area’s finest young musicians called the Omaha Youth Symphony, which is still going strong today. Bill’s private coach identified his protege as a prime candidate and, sure enough, Bill made the grade. Even in the Youth Symphony he stood out, as he was younger than any of the other players, who were largely high school or college upperclassmen. The experience of playing with the group had a big impact on the teen. “I really got to loving the orchestral music,” he said. Being pegged a rising star among local players meant being “a big fish in a small pond,” he said, “but nevertheless it was a very gratifying feeling.”

When a seat in the regular adult Symphony opened that next season Swaggard urged Bill to go for it. “Don was an aggressive person about that sort of thing and had he not been so in favor of it and really pushing on it I probably wouldn’t have done it, at least not with the (same) vigor. I wanted it, but mostly because he said, ‘This is something you can get, this is something you can do.’” Swaggard didn’t mislead either, telling Bill he would have to work harder than he ever had before to reach a level he couldn’t yet appreciate. “And all of that was true,” said Bill. “It did take a great deal more work. He really paved the way with the conductor, Joseph Levine, and got him to believe that he could take somebody like me and work with me and make it happen.”

Bill did make it, as did a Youth Symphony percussionist and a violinist. Earning a Symphony slot — as 4th French Horn — at 14 is analogous “to a kid playing Pop Warner League ball suddenly getting to play semi-pro ball, just like that,” he said, snapping his fingers. “How awesome it was to be at that level. It was amazing. I felt I was really special and I had that feeling for a number of years.”

How was Bill treated at the start by veteran musicians old enough to be his parents or grandparents?

“More as a novelty than anything at first,” he said. “The age difference was so great that it was hard for them to really believe that you belonged. It took awhile to really gain any acceptance and you had to earn it, definitely earn it. I would say the three of us were the type of players that were willing to work on that and earn it and to find out what it took to do it and gain that respect.”

He said “it probably wasn’t until I was into the college years” that that respect was granted. He continued his development at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music education and performance. He taught and was a band director in the Papillion and Bellevue public schools. Meanwhile, he and childhood sweetheart, Kathie, a retired teacher and fellow musician, married and raised two sons, both of whom are musicians. His wife does the books at The Horn Works and both boys have apprenticed as repair technicians there. Drew is electronic department manager and does percussion and electronic repair. David works for the state.

Bill’s penchant for working with his hands made it “natural” and practical that he began repairing his own horns in his basement. He moved on to working on a wide range of students’ and professionals’ instruments. He was very intentional about learning the trade of instrument repair from masters and mentors he sought out.

“All of whom have passed away,” he said, “and this is kind of the way this profession is. We don’t have many of us and there’s not a lot of guys hammering at the door to get in and find out how to do this. I would say the number one person was Charlie Sheppard. As a teacher I used to go out and hang around with him during vacation breaks. A lot of schools would send instruments in during Christmas break because nobody’s using them then. I’d watch and learn from him. It takes a lifetime and you may never get there, but you can watch somebody who knows, who’s already made the mistakes and learned the ways to do it, and it helps a lot.”

Ultimately, he said, “you learn by doing.” Before long, Charlie, who also played and taught music, trusted his protege. “He’d say, ‘Here, go do this one,’ handing me a horn. “So I did that. It’s a trial and error method.” Bill misses the Charlies and their Old World shops. “It was just fascinating to watch these guys sitting at their benches working on things. There was something about those shops — you got within a hundred feet and you could smell the chemicals. Today, EPA and OSHA rules prohibit that. But I loved that smell. I mean, you could get high on it,” he said, laughing.

Being mechanically inclined helped Bill master the craft but working on trumpets and motor vehicles are worlds apart. “The biggest difference is that an instrument is so much more finely concentrated with so many small pieces in very small areas,” he said. Where a car dent fender may entail hammering, disc grinding, painting and priming, a horn dent involves a refined burnishing process whose tools must reach narrow, hard to access spaces. Some tools are like plumbers’ snakes with strings of teflon-coated ball bearings thread through the instrument’s arteries and guts. Surgical-like copes are sometimes used to see up inside joints.

That’s not to say Bill and his techs never get to pound things. Sometimes a repair requires heating the metal and hammering or pressing it back into shape. The only way to get at some problems is to dismantle the piece. After decades diagnosing and doctoring instruments, Bill’s just about seen it all. “I think there’s not too many we haven’t encountered,” he said. A unique one was a sousaphone with a rotted peach stuck in its tubing. The gunk had to be rotor-rooted out.

Occasionally a name musician comes into the shop. One is former Tonight Show band leader Doc Severinson. “I’ve known Doc now for better than 30 years,” said Bill. “The first time he played Omaha with the Symphony he needed something done on his trumpet and one of the players in our section said, ‘Well, just give it to Bill, he’ll take a look.’ Doc did and Bill brought the famed’s musician’s trumpet back to the shop and took care of the problem. Before Bill could call to say he’d fixed it Doc showed up. “He just couldn’t be without it any longer,” said Bill.

Bill delights in an anecdote from Doc’s visit. After testing out his patched-up horn Doc pawed through a box of odds-and-ends Bill kept — spare parts and just plain junk — when hr fished out a filthy mouthpiece, put it in his mouth and buzzed it just as Bill warned, “No, don’t do that!” Too late. “You want to sell this?” Doc asked, none-the-worse-for-wear. “You can keep it, I was going to throw it away,” Bill replied, shocked that a world-class artist would want it. “It was an old New York Bach 3 mouthpiece and he couldn’t have too many of them,” Bill noted.

“Every time since then when he comes to town we sit down and talk in the rehearsal room or in his dressing room. On three occasions he’s come to the store. He’d rather come here and talk to us than sit in his hotel room all day. Once, he took us all to lunch. We worked on four of his instruments at the same time. His horns actually were in pretty bad shape for a guy at that level. It was amazing to us he could and would play on those.” Bill and his crew also did some silver plating for Doc. “He’s a very nice man and, oh, the stories he tells us about his life.”

Another star Bill has a long relationship with is Chip Davis, the visionary Omaha musician behind American Gramaphone and Mannheim Steamroller, with whom Bill’s played off and on from the start. Bill drove Itzhak Perlman between Omaha and Lincoln for a series of symphony engagements, allowing him to hear “all these marvelous stories of his life.”

The orchestra keeps Bill plenty busy but he’s also played with the Lincoln, Sioux City and Des Moines symphonies — when they put out calls for extra brass — and with the Omaha-based Palladium Brass Quintet. He does some teaching with the Omaha Youth Symphony and with private students. His full-line Horn Works store, which he’s run full-time since retiring from the classroom, does more than just repair instruments. It sells them and offers lessons.

Bill’s still learning himself even after all these years. He fondly recalls former Omaha Symphony maestro Victor Yampolsky as a superb teacher who brought out the best in him and in the orchestra. “No question in my estimation he was the finest conductor/musician we’ve had around here. When he was here he was always teaching and there wasn’t anybody that wasn’t always just right there (with him).”

An Omaha Symphony career was Bill’s goal but he never thought he’d still be at it 50 years and counting. “Am I proud? Yes I am, very much so,” he said. “To be 50 years in about anything — a marriage, a job — is a milestone. For most of us it’s at least half our life, if not more. It’s a big deal to do something for that long and to still enjoy it, and I know Marcia (Hinkle) does just as I do. You do this not because it’s a habit, you do it because you enjoy it. If they would stop paying me tomorrow I’d continue to do it,” said Bill, hastily adding, “I don’t want them to know that.”

He’s committed to keep right on enjoying it, too. “As long as I can keep my job by doing what I do well enough to stay in there I want to play with the Symphony. I had no idea it would be this long either but I also didn’t think I was going to use Omaha as a steppingstone and go somewhere else. Maybe very early on I did. But then I got into the real world of auditioning and saw what the level was out there that’s beyond Omaha and how much that takes, and I wasn’t willing to give up my life to do that. That’s basically what it takes — you dedicate everything to it, and everything I had was here. My family was here, my regular day job was here.

“For me, this is the only gig in town.”

Playing to the beat of a distant violin


Silent violin

Image via Wikipedia

One of my favorite stories from my checkered career is this profile of Stephen Kelley, a fine symphony violinist who at the time I interviewed him lived in a trailer park and worked a warehouse job — not exactly what you would expect from a classical player. Various traumas sent him on a path of meditation, yoga, philosophy, and enlightenment, hardly the pursuits you associate with a trailer park resident.  But then again everything about Kelley was incongruous, always in an interesting way, always overturning your stereotypes.  He’s a genuine eccentric in the best sense of the word.  I understand he’s still playing of course but that he’s left behind that warehouse job to teach school.  This story epitomizes my penchant and instinct for writing about people and their passions and their magnificent obsessions. I think I gravitate to these subjects because I identify with the subjects so much.  The piece originally appeared in the now defunct Omaha Weekly.

 

Playing to the beat of a distant violin

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Omaha Weekly

 

The surprisingly spacious house trailer is situated on a small lot in the Park Meadows Mobile Home community in northwest Omaha. The pale blue trailer’s owner, Super Target warehouse laborer Stephen Kelley, is a balding, middle-age man dressed in the sweatshirt, jeans and sneakers he will wear on the overnight shift that evening. The decor inside is warm and cozy. Vintage photographic portraits adorn the imitation wood-paneled walls. By mid-afternoon a fine bottle of wine has been opened and, as sleet showers shimmer outside, a relaxed Kelley removes his concert violin from a case and begins playing a passage from Antonin Dvorak’s Four Romantic Pieces. The vibrato is rich and sweet. The technique, assured. The incongruity of it all — a mobile home dweller who stocks frozen foods for a living who also happens to play the violin sublimely — is a bit surreal. But, in one of those instances where appearances and labels can be deceiving, it turns out his craftsmanship is the result of years of serious classical training. He has, in fact, played in the first violin sections of several Midwest symphony orchestras, including the Omaha Symphony, which he first joined at the tender age of 18.

Once on the fast track to a promising career in the mainstream classical music world, Kelley has in recent years chosen to follow a road less traveled, especially for someone with his solid credentials. He has two degrees from Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, he trained under top violin instructors and he boasts a resume full of solid professional music performances. A self-described “misfit,” he has largely dropped-out of traditional music circles to pursue an artistic-survival course some might call eccentric. That has meant working a series of regular jobs, including a long stint as a manager and maintenance supervisor with McDonald’s, to support himself, his wife and son. Since suffering a severe head injury in an automobile crack-up in 1985, and reeling from an emotional collapse that followed, Kelley has worked no fewer than nine positions.

 

 

All the while, he has continued perfecting his violin playing. He did advance studies with, among others, the late David Majors, who was a respected violin instructor in the area, and with noted violinist Kenneth Goldsmith, a member of the world-renown Mirecourt Trio. He has performed occasional solo recitals and as part of several ensembles. He still sometimes sits-in with area orchestras.

He has also continued a lifelong search for inner peace and spiritual enlightenment. Raised a Catholic, Kelley became enchanted with the writing of Thomas Merton and at one point came close to entering the monastic life (he earned a vocation scholarship to Benedictine). Later, he fell away from Catholicism to explore Quaker teachings and Eastern philosophies. In the past six years he has immersed himself in yoga, using meditation, along with his beloved music, to help him deal with his demons. Chief among those demons is his highly emotional nature and his fanaticsim with doing things right. A serious student of past music and musicians, Kelley sets standards that are perhaps beyond his reach. An instructor of piano at Creighton University, Elaine Majors, knows Kelley well and his preoccupation with trying to achieve a purity in his playing that approaches the masters. “He is so well-versed in how a piece of music should sound that if he can’t produce it, it’s very defeating to him and absolute agony for him.” It’s why, she said, he would find teaching music too frustrating — as the search for that perfect golden tone would surely always elude him or his students.

 

 

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Thomas Merton

 

Those familiar with Kelley confirm he is an artist of rare insight who has followed a maverick path. “He has a very fine musical background. He’s very talented. He’s very perceptive. He studies other musicians carefully. He’s constantly self-analytical. He continually veers off in other directions. He’s always looking for new approaches. He’s interesting, he’s different and he’s engaged. Music is his life,” said Elaine Majors, whose late husband, David, he studied under many years.

“His talent is evident in his unflagging interest in all aspects of the violin,” said Arnold Schatz, a longtime Omaha Symphony player and retired music educator whom Kelley has studied with on several occasions. “He has not only a deep interest in the violin, but rather a passion and almost an obsession with the violin.”

Kelley acknowledges his hard-to-satisfy aesthetic nature has been a source of torture inside and outside the music scene. “I’m sensitive and I’m a perfectionist, and that’s very tough on me. I often work with people who don’t understand me at all. People harass the hell out of me. But I understand how to do my job very well. I don’t ever slack off and I don’t ever do second-rate,” he said before charting a litany of dirt he asserts has been done to him by employers and co-workers upset with his overzealousness. “I’ve had all sorts of nasty things happen to me. I’ve been walking through disasters for 20 years.”

He realizes he sometimes may have exacerbated bad situations by having “stepped on a few toes” or by “taking a stance” or by speaking out against “greedy, ruthless, dishonest” practices he feels are rampant in corporate America. “What you find out in these companies is that everybody’s in it for themselves.”

Call it naivete or idealism, but Kelley himself sometimes sounds like a dreamer who cannot quite come to terms with the human condition. He has paid a price for his rather romantic notions and high-strung nature. For example, as a young man he crumbled under the strain of losing a prized violin and breaking up with his then fiance in short order and subsequently endured the first of his nervous breakdowns. While he has avoided further emotional crises since the head trauma he suffered in the 1980s, he still occasionally battles a bad case of nerves when performing in public. His stage fright first reared its ugly head when, as a Benson High School senior, he froze on a solo of Autumn Leaves during a school concert. “I locked up and I couldn’t move the bow. The nerves just exploded on me. I never even put the bow on the violin. I had practiced the piece so intensely and with so much trepidation that when the movement came my body gave out — literally. So, I’ve had to fight nerves ever since.”

 

 

 

 

 

He said he has come to largely control his butterflies through a combination of intense preparation and pharmaceutical aids. “Part of dealing with nerves is being prepared 200 percent and understanding your craft like a rocket scientist. I’ve been working on my craft for over 30 years, and I still fear the nerves. I tend to take a beta blocker to keep from flying off the handle. The pill doesn’t stop the adrenalin at all, but at least I can function” with it.

Far from being crippled by his intuitiveness, Kelley makes great thrift of it when performing, which for him is an intense experience but one made even more so when playing passages of heightened emotion. “When I play a piece of music I look for the emotional high points. The passages where goose bumps come. They’re there. If you don’t find them, you don’t know the music.” Those moments become what he calls “ecstatic” moments for him and, hopefully, audience members as well. “The emotions are overpowering and I let them flow into the music. The emotion is carried. You want to connect emotionally with the audience — from your very heart, right to the person in front of you, so that they can feel you right through the violin.”

Not unlike meditation, he said playing can transport him to another place. “There are spots in the music where I feel the breath coming and releasing with a sense of peace. They’re like lifting spots. It’s rather magical.”

Giving into one’s emotions during a performance can detract from technical perfection, which is why he said most classical violinists prefer to play it safe rather than expose their depth of feeling and risk tonal variations on stage. “Part of that reluctance,” he said, “is because everything is so professional and competitive and it’s the whole thing about — you’ve got to get every note perfect and the critics have to like what you do.” It’s not that Kelley doesn’t believe in rigorous technique. He does. In fact, he finds far too many of today’s players technically sloppy, with excessive movement in their bowing elbow and wrist producing a wavering and somewhat flattened vibrato. The player is working against his instrument rather than being one with it. The technique he prefers employs minimal arm movement, which he said produces a richer, more seamless tone. “I have a very advanced, efficient violin technique that is focused, tight, fast, and that produces the incomparable…the essence — beauty. There’s no other word for it. There’s a little roundness to it. Not so much that it overpowers what you’re trying to play. But it just takes it further. Then you’re bringing out the potential of the violin. And then if you think beauty, it seems like the violin itself responds.”

Kelley’s affinity for the mystical and ethereal has driven his quest to try and master yoga. Since attending a public meditation given by her in Boulder, Co., Kelley has become a devotee of Shri Anandi Ma, a world-renowned instructor in Kundalini Maha Yoga, which is based on the premise that there is a divine healing energy in each of us waiting to be tapped. Kelley, who describes her as “a saint,” feels yoga has changed his life. “It has been very effective for me with stress reduction and with moving me into other levels of consciousness. Breath regulation is the be all and end all of it. My most intense experiences — what I call ecstatic experiences — have meant that my breathing went from self-control to almost divine control. The sensations in the body are subtle and intense. The feeling within you is a physical sensation of great cellular togetherness and peace. Breathing becomes almost like a joy. I wish my violin playing went that far.”

 

 

 

Beyond these ancient mind-body-spirit traditions, Kelley derives what might be called spiritual sustenance from his favorite authors, including Loren Eiseley and Sherwood Anderson, and from his favorite composers, including Johann Brahms and Franz Schubert. From early childhood on Kelley has indulged his two primary passions — reading and music — with the kind of enthusiasm found only in the most ardent followers. He once owned an extensive collection of books and records, but has sold or given most of it away. Before he began devouring books at the Benson public library (he read through all the classics as an adolescent), he had long ago cultivated a love of music.

“I was born with this connection to sound. Music was so strong with me that as a toddler I could walk up to the radio or TV and tell you who was singing. My mother was into music. I was able to access her record collection, which had some of the best classical recordings you could get your hands on, and I learned it all — forwards and backwards. At home we had an Admiral TV with a turntable and four speakers. It had unbelievably good sound. I ran that system from grade school right into high school.”

He began studying the violin at age 9, but did not take his first private lesson until 12. While not quite a prodigy, he made an auspicious recital debut about a year later when he played the Mylnarski Mazurka without accompaniment. Then, in a rare feat, he joined the Omaha Symphony just out of high school in 1968 — as an 18-year-old — under the baton of conductor Joseph Levine. He received a graduate music fellowship to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. And as a junior in college he played the entire Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, Brahms First Sonata and First Bach Sonata unaccompanied and from memory.

After such early success, including two later stints with the Omaha Symphony under conductors Yuri Krasnapolsky (whom he adored) and Thomas Briccetti (whom he despised) and performing with the Opera Omaha Orchestra under such famous guest conductors as Arthur Fielder, Kelley quit the symphony scene and its “politics” to do his own thing.

He made himself persona non grata with the local symphony when he publicly questioned Briccetti’s credentials in a Sun Newspaper commentary. He discontinued the UNL fellowship in the midst of his first nervous breakdown. He rebounded to perform as a member of the David Majors and Myron Cohen String Quartets.

He also founded and performed in a string trio — Les Troi Cords — for which he wrote many arrangements. More recently, he has used his diverse connections to serve as “a catalyst” in putting together concert programs, including performances by the Mirecourt Trio and the Omaha Youth Orchestra at his alma mater (Benedictine) and organizing and performing in recitals, like one in 1997 at First Unitarian Church in Omaha featuring “outcast artists” like himself.

The iconoclastic journey Kelley has opted to take has been a difficult one, but he feels venturing off the beaten track to follow his muse and to find the truth has been worth it. “It’s become more creative every step of the way. I do what I love to do,” he said, a contented smile creasing his face.

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