Psst: Thomas Wilkins loves John Williams and his movie music.
OK, that’s not much of a revelation to followers of the Omaha Symphony throughout Wilkins’ seven years as music director. To be honest, he wears his abiding admiration for Williams on his sleeve. But when Wilkins lets it show in programs like Saturday night’s all-Williams celebration, the audience gets to see his personality at its ebullient best.
In fact, concertgoers in the first couple of rows might have been able to read the writing (if there had been any) on Wilkins’ sleeve — because he came out in a long-sleeve, banded-collar white shirt without the usual tuxedo jacket and tie. His message was clear: This was a night to have fun with music.
“There’s always a lot you leave on the table when you do a John Williams concert — which is a good reason to do another John Williams concert,” he said before wrapping up the first act with the “Adventures on Earth” theme from “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.” When the near-capacity Holland Performing Arts Center audience agreed with its applause, Wilkins added: “OK, next week!”
As Wilkins pointed out, it’s a good year in any case to honor the celebrated Oscar-winning composer, who turned 80 in February. The symphony’s two-hour program pulled out all the stops, offering 15 Williams pieces and bringing in the Omaha Symphonic Chorus and the Creighton University Chamber Choir as reinforcements on four of Williams’ choral-orchestral numbers.
It’s always a treat when choirs join the symphony to remind Omahans that they have an acoustically superior venue in the Holland’s main Kiewit Concert Hall. The combined choral groups responded to their setting with superb vocal blend and precise diction in delivering texts in Latin (“Exsultate Justi” from “Empire of the Sun”), Mendi (“Dry Your Tears, Afrika” from “Amistad”) and Sanskrit (“Duel of the Fates” from “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace”).
Among the evening’s other highlights, both musical and humorous:
In leading the ensemble in “Theme from ‘Schindler’s List,’” symphony concertmaster Susanna Perry Gilmore applied a heartbreakingly mellow tone to the violin solo that depicts the suffering of the Jewish people in the Holocaust. She awed the crowd into dead silence as her last tones slowly faded away.
“Star Wars” themes were of course prominent, with the choir-assisted “Battle of the Heroes” (“Episode III: Revenge of the Sith”) joining “Duel of the Fates,” “The Imperial March” (“The Empire Strikes Back”) and of course the “Main Title” that started it all in 1977.
“Hedwig’s Theme” (“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”) turns to the celesta for the mysterious bell-like melody unique to Harry’s faithful owl. Regular symphony keyboardist Christi Zuniga received a well-deserved ovation for her execution of several difficult passages on the undersized instrument, which one rarely sees outside the orchestra.
After urging Zuniga to take a bow following “Hedwig,” Wilkins asked the children in the audience to raise their hands if they take piano lessons. “Did you hear what she just played? Did you hear how fast it was?” he said playfully. “The reason she can do that is because when she was your age, when it was time for her to practice, she didn’t say, ‘I want to play ‘SpongeBob’!”