During last weekend's concerts, Maestro Thomas Wilkins wasn't seeking the Omaha Symphony's sympathy — but he was physically hurting.
So he took deep breaths and, in sports terminology, sucked it up. He played through the pain.
James Johnson, the symphony's president and CEO, put the drama in football terms: “Injury, an audible and a goal-line stand come to mind.”
Wilkins, 56, who works out regularly, was coming off Oct. 31 hernia surgery. He thinks that in protecting the healing incision during rehearsals leading to the big weekend with violinist Joshua Bell, he might have stood differently, putting pressure on his lower back.
He had felt tightness Friday night. But during the second movement of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto, Wilkins felt a snap, a twinge and then great pain.
The term some people use is “throwing your back out.” But he couldn't just throw the musical score out and stop conducting. The show had to go on.
Adrenaline, he said, kept him going.
“I'd never had back problems before,” Wilkins said Monday. “It felt like someone poking you with a knife.”
Saturday morning, he couldn't get out of bed. His “audible” was to alert resident conductor Ernest Richardson that he might have to go on that night.
Richardson rushed to the Holland Performing Arts Center and began studying the score for Tchaikovsky's 44-minute First Symphony, which he had never conducted.
The maestro, meanwhile, said that on a scale of 1 to 10, his pain was now at 9.
“I said to my wife, 'There's no way I can conduct tonight,'” Wilkins said. “Sheri-Lee is a former physical therapist. She tried to come up with solutions, and was pretty much encouraging me to stop saying I couldn't do it, as wives do.”
A physician (who had attended Friday night's concert) prescribed a muscle relaxant, and the patient took ibuprofen for pain.
At 2 p.m., Wilkins saw his massage therapist, Julie Shanahan. She and her husband agreed to change their plans for Saturday night and get a baby sitter so that she could be at the Holland Center.
Wilkins then took “an old-fashioned Epsom salts bath.”
Until his surgery, Wilkins for years had stretched each day and lifted weights three days a week. A track hurdler in his youth, he says a conductor must stay physically fit.
Fifteen minutes before the Saturday concert, Johnson arrived backstage to find Wilkins “in sweats and a T-shirt in his dressing room, face twisted in pain, flat on his back.”
His massage therapist had her shoulder pressed against his raised leg.
Symphony players sometimes get the flu and have to call in sick. In Indianapolis one night when Wilkins was conducting, an arriving piccolo player slipped on the ice and broke her ankle. Illness and injuries happen.
With or without Wilkins, the show Saturday night would go on. But he had never missed a performance, and he wanted to go on, too.
“We had a lot invested in the weekend,” he explained, “and we had a ginormous, world-renowned guest artist.”
Joshua Bell agreed to play in the first half of the concert Saturday, rather than the second half. If Wilkins could make it through only Bell's part, Richardson would conduct Tchaikovsky.
Wilkins, in formal attire, opened the concert by walking gingerly on stage. He publicly thanked his wife and his massage therapist and apologized for the presence of a stool.
The first-half performance with Bell went great and drew a big ovation.
At intermission, Wilkins was back on the floor getting more therapy. He said he would conduct the second half, too.
During that part of the concert, he rested on the stool between movements, seemingly in pain. But he made it through to the end.
“After the concert and the second standing ovation of the night,” Johnson said, “I looked for Thomas in his dressing room. Instead, I found him just offstage, slumped in a chair. He had kept the pain at bay just long enough to finish the performance.”
Next week he conducts in Sarasota, Fla. As Johnson said, he no doubt will look for the best massage therapist in town.
On Monday, Wilkins was “moving a little better,” and could even chuckle.
“Joshua Bell felt horrible that I felt so bad,” the maestro said. “He said, 'I won't hug you — I'm afraid to touch you.'”
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