A record for standing ovations might have been broken Saturday night at the Holland Center.
The occasion was the final concert for Omaha Symphony Music Director Thomas Wilkins, who is retiring, and it was an emotional and heartfelt tribute from beginning to end.
“We’re glad you’re here to celebrate our 100th anniversary and to say farewell to Thomas Wilkins at the end of an incredible 16-year tenure,” symphony President and CEO Jennifer Boomgaarden told the audience at the outset of the evening.
Then Wilkins stepped onstage, prompting the night’s first prolonged standing ovation.
Remarkable things followed:
A world premiere of “Lift Up Thine Ears,” a piece the maestro commissioned from composer Michael Daugherty for the symphony’s century landmark.
Wilkins told the crowd that he wanted a piece that would celebrate the orchestra’s great talent and honor the community.
It appeared he got what he asked for: The evening’s second ovation, which lasted at least five minutes, was the crowd’s blessing for the new piece and a thank you for the parting gift from the popular conductor.
The work was beautiful and complex, with inspiration from William Shakespeare, Martin Luther King Jr. and Emily Dickinson, according to program notes by Daugherty, a resident of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who was on hand for the premiere and took bows with Wilkins.
“It was amazing what emotions I felt,“ one audience member said of the piece as he was leaving the concert. Another said she got choked up as she listened.
A performance from saxophonist Branford Marsalis, member of a renowned New Orleans family of musicians and former bandleader on “The Tonight Show.” He’s a longtime friend of Wilkins.
He played “Escapades for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra” by John Williams, who has won Academy Awards for his movie scores.
At the end of the piece, Wilkins hugged Marsalis a couple of times, and they exchanged a fist bump.
The third ovation was almost as long as the first two.
A compelling video tribute to Wilkins introduced by symphony board President David Slosburg featuring orchestra members, former guest artists and friends from across the country.
“He (is leaving) a very uplifting legacy,” said cellist Joshua Roman, a popular guest performer.
Concertmaster Susanna Perry Gilmore spoke of his leadership.
“He encouraged us to listen to each other and take full ownership of our (sound),” she said.
At the end of the video, Slosburg named Wilkins the Omaha Symphony’s music director laureate “in recognition of your leadership, humility, humanitarian efforts and the place you hold in our hearts.”
“You are welcome back to our stage anytime,” Slosburg said.
Cue another ovation.
A stirring performance of Edward Elgar’s “Enigma Variations.” The ceremonious final variation — in which all of the musicians were playing most of the time — provided a triumphant end to Wilkins’ Omaha story.
The final applause was the longest of all, with multiple whoops and three curtain calls. Nobody wanted to leave.
People across the country and perhaps around the world saw the concert livestreamed on the symphony’s website. And it was a featured performance at the League of American Orchestras’ annual conference, which started June 7.
Omahan Becky Nicholson, who has been a regular at symphony concerts since Wilkins joined in 2005, said the evening was superb yet bittersweet.
“He has done a lot with education and brought in diverse artists,” she said. “And he has really done a lot for the community.”
Amid all the tributes, Wilkins had something to say about his emotions as he moves on.
“I want to say that this baton I have in my hand and wave on a regular basis doesn’t make a sound,” he said. “It’s only in the midst of these beautiful people behind me that beauty happens.”
And, he said to the crowd, “everything happens on this stage with the love and support of you.”
Ankush Kumar Bahl takes over as the music director in August, and Wilkins said he’s excited about the future of the orchestra.
“My prayer for him is that you will do for him as you have done for me,” Wilkins said. “And, as my grandmother would say, may God bless you so profoundly that it makes your head spin.”