TAMPA — "Welcome home, maestro," a voice from the audience said when Thomas Wilkins stepped onto the podium Friday night at Morsani Hall of the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. The sentiment was perfect for the return of the Florida Orchestra's former resident conductor who made a big impact on the community during his tenure in the Tampa Bay area from 1994 to 2002.
Wilkins seems to have an intuitive grasp of what is right for the orchestra. As guest conductor of the 2010-11 season's opening program, he put the focus on the orchestra itself. No soloist. No big, complex piece to draw a lot of attention to the conductor.
Wilkins couldn't have known it when he assembled it months ago, but his program was just what the orchestra needed.
Respighi's symphonic postcard, The Pines of Rome; Liszt's bombastic slice of 19th century romanticism, Les Preludes; the melancholy tunes of Faure's Pelleas et Melisande suite; the Polovtsian Dances (including Stranger in Paradise) from Borodin's opera Prince Igor — all these popular standard showed off the orchestra. And a contemporary piece, James A. Beckel Jr.'s 2006 Toccata for Orchestra, was a propulsive, exciting curtain raiser that gave each section its moment in the spotlight.
No, the ensemble was not completely polished, not after a summer's hiatus, but the playing was still impressively strong.
Wilkins is fondly remembered by musicians in the orchestra because he served diligently with them in the trenches — and, in many ways, grew up as a conductor here — before moving on to have a prominent national career. Today he has his own orchestra, as music director of the Omaha Symphony, and is principal guest conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra.
Before rehearsals began this week, the musicians had to take a substantial, potentially devastating pay cut, or else the season could have been canceled. I am certain they appreciated the supportive presence of Wilkins at a demoralizing time.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at tampabay.com/blogs/critics.