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Farewell, team player; smash-mouth music

By ERNEST HOOPER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 2, 2002

Having been immersed in sports for the last 15 years, I confess to not knowing much about the Florida Orchestra.

Having been immersed in sports for the last 15 years, I confess to not knowing much about the Florida Orchestra.

Yet as I sat at the orchestra's salute to outgoing resident conductor Thomas Wilkins at the Hyatt Westshore Friday night, there were some clear parallels to sports.

From my vantage point, the orchestra musicians are like football players. They try out to make the team and go through long hours of practice during the week in order to perform well on the weekend. Their season runs a little longer (September to May) and, of course, they are not paid as well as even an NFL backup. But there are a finite number of jobs for professional musicians and they feel as fortunate as any Buccaneer to be among the elite. Maybe more so.

The way I see it, the orchestra's music director is the general manager and the artistic director is the offensive coordinator. Maestro Wilkins is the coach, and, from all accounts, a darn good one. With the orchestra set to have new people in all three of those positions next season, it is clearly embarking upon a new era.

The difference here is that there may not be a coach in any aspect of professional sports who is as loved as Wilkins. Much like former Bucs coach Tony Dungy helped turn the team around, Wilkins helped uplift the orchestra.

When he arrived from the Richmond (Va.) Symphony in 1994, financial problems had people wondering if there was even going to be an orchestra. Yet something about Wilkins' persona was reassuring.

"I know we're going to be okay," an orchestra member told him. "I know God wouldn't have sent you here if this orchestra was going to fall apart."

Buoyed by those words, Wilkins gave his all to the orchestra and the community. His devotion to educating people (from kids to seniors) about music made him, as Times critic John Fleming has written, "the people's maestro." His volunteer service with groups such as CASA, the St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts, the Palladium Theatre and Joshua House made him a community icon.

In the world of sports, there might be some bitterness about the departure of Wilkins, who is leaving "our team" to join the Detroit Symphony. The prevailing feeling among orchestra fans, who have as much passion for music as Bucs fans have for football, is that Wilkins has earned the right to go on to a better program. Detroit has no sandy beaches and only a fraction of the warm weather days we enjoy, but its symphony has its own hall and tours Europe every other summer.

I guess they do more up there than build cars.

At Friday's event, they were supposed to toast and roast Wilkins, but no one really could roast him. There was some good-natured humor, but just about everyone who spoke kept coming back to one word: love. Wilkins received three standing ovations, and each was long enough to time with the minute hand on my watch.

"From the bottom of my heart, I don't get it," Wilkins told the audience. "I don't get why all of you showed up tonight, I don't get why people keep stopping me on the street and telling me how much they're going to miss me."

The Red Wings, Lions and Tigers have all had huge victories against the Lightning, Bucs and Rays, but Wilkins represents Detroit's biggest win over Tampa Bay.

While I'm on this sports theme, let me offer a suggestion: A battle of the orchestras at Raymond James Stadium.

I have it on pretty good authority that we could outplay most of the orchestras in the southeast, so I'm ready for a showdown against Charlotte, Atlanta or anyone else bold enough to step up to the stage. Of course, the orchestra would have to train outside all summer so we will have a true homefield advantage in the heat.

Experts would determine the winner, which means the risk of a controversial score from the French judge, but this is an idea that can build civic pride and maybe generate a few extra dollars for the orchestra.

And after we mop up the scrub orchestras in our region, it would be time to take on Detroit and Wilkins. Imagine the hype for that showdown.

That's all I'm saying.

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