LINCOLN — When he was just 8 years old, Thomas Wilkins heard an orchestra for the first time and told his teacher, “That’s what I want to do when I grow up.”
Premiering at 9 p.m. CT Nov. 15 on Nebraska Public Media, “Beyond the Baton” is a television biography of Wilkins, the longest serving conductor and music director laureate of the Omaha Symphony. He is also the first African American in the history of the Boston Symphony to hold a conducting position.
“The Omaha Symphony was proud to participate in the making of this very special homage to and celebration of our long-time artistic leader and current Music Director Laureate Thomas Wilkins,” said Omaha Symphony President and CEO Jennifer Boomgaarden Daoud. “We look forward to the release of this documentary, as we know it will transmit far and wide what the musicians, staff, and stakeholders here at the Omaha Symphony know to be true of Maestro Wilkins: That he is as genuine, kind and giving as he is an incredible musician and leader.”
“Beyond the Baton” is also a story of struggle. Just as the symphony was gearing up to celebrate its 100th birthday, the pandemic shut everything down, including performance music and work on this documentary. “Beyond the Baton” follows the Nebraska Public Media production crew in early 2020, when our understanding of the impending pandemic was just beginning.
A trip to Boston, Massachusetts, to capture Wilkins conducting there resulted in an immediate quarantine for the crew upon their return to Lincoln. All of the planning and preparation for the documentary was no longer viable, so the crew had to piece together a plan for completing the project under very different circumstances.
At last, Wilkins celebrates the end of his tenure as music director with a powerful concert. “Beyond the Baton” captures the Omaha Symphony event, which Wilkins described as time when “music still flourishes and beauty gets to have the last word.”
Wilkins was raised on gospel music by a single mom in a poor neighborhood in Norfolk, Virginia. His lifelong passion for music got him where he is today — at the center of cultural life in Omaha and a sought-after guest conductor all over the U.S.
As a child, Wilkins set up his toy soldiers in semicircles to look like an orchestra and pretended to conduct them. He learned to play the violin, the cello and the tuba, and by junior high, he was conducting the school orchestra.
“Beyond the Baton” captures Wilkins working with students and sharing his love for music. To support music education, Nebraska Public Media produced short videos and interactive media to accompany the documentary.
Teachers in Nebraska and across the country can access the educational media, activities and lesson plans related to “Beyond the Baton” through PBS LearningMedia beginning Nov. 16. They will find interviews with Wilkins and demonstrations by Omaha Symphony musicians, as well as use three-dimensional virtual reality to explore instruments.