Arturo Toscanini never wore 5-inch heels on the conducting podium. Leopold Stokowski didn’t run half marathons. And Leonard Bernstein didn’t travel to symphony gigs with a little dog named after an opera character.
Those are just a few of the ways Sarah Hicks breaks the stereotype of symphony orchestra conductor.
Here’s the classic image of the classical conductor: an authoritarian man with a distinguished profile, a venerable mane of white hair and preferably a European accent. And here’s Hicks, who in 2006 became the first woman to hold a titled conducting post with the Minnesota Orchestra: She was born in Tokyo, grew up in Honolulu (where she went to the same high school as Barack Obama), and in her free time she likes to go trail running, sometimes winning her age group in running races. (She’s in her 40s but looks 10 years younger.) On her headphones, she’s more likely to be listening to Beck and Björk than Beethoven or Bach.
Since 2009, she’s been the orchestra’s principal conductor of the “Live at Orchestra Hall” concert series, a job that involves conducting the orchestra in collaborations with pop stars like Ben Folds, Cloud Cult and Rufus Wainwright, conducting music to movie screenings and even making music with celebrity chefs. She also takes to the podium for the “Inside the Classics” performances that aim to demystify classical music. Her contract with the orchestra was recently extended through the 2020-21 season. Hicks’ mother is a classical Japanese dancer and dance teacher. Her father was an international banking lawyer from Oakland. They decided to raise Hicks midway between Tokyo and the Bay Area.
Her musical career began when she was 4 or 5 and started taking piano lessons and really took to it. She loved the discipline of practice and the expression of performance. She was heading down the path to being a concert pianist. But then she developed a debilitating case of chronic tendinitis in her hands.
“I was 16 or 17 and extremely depressed hearing this news,” she says. “I think I was crying in my room, and my father came in and said, ‘Stop crying. You can still hold a stick.’ ”
She played the viola in her high school orchestra, and when her teacher handed her his baton to try conducting the first movement of Dvorák’s Eighth Symphony, “I was sold,” she says. “It felt physically so instinctual to me.”
After getting a music composition degree at Harvard and a diploma in conducting at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, she started climbing the rungs of the symphony orchestra conducting field. Since coming to Minnesota, she’s carved out a niche in pops performances, what she sees as “an expansion industry” for orchestras. She also takes side gigs like touring with Sting in Europe.
She’s married to Paul LaFollette, a French horn player she met at Curtis. “He called me Hawaiian Punch,” she says of LaFollette, who now works as a financial adviser. “The worst pickup line ever.”
They used to live in Minneapolis, but a few years ago they moved to San Francisco to be nearer to her brother.
Hicks flies to the Twin Cities and to guest conducting jobs around the world frequently in the company of her toy papillon spaniel named Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton. It’s a musical joke since papillon means butterfly in French, and Pinkerton is a character in the Puccini opera, “Madama Butterfly.” The fact that Hicks is part Japanese makes it funnier.
“Every orchestra knows him,” Hicks says. “He’s like a little rock star wherever I take him.’”
Here’s what Hicks has to say about conducting orchestras and pop stars in an interview we’ve edited for clarity and space:
When you decided you wanted to be a conductor, did you have any role models? Where there other conductors who looked like you?
No. Not really. Certainly not a half-Asian woman. My idol as a child was Leonard Bernstein, but he was from a different generation. He’s the classic maestro. The classical white hair. The distinguished profile. That’s just not me. I didn’t quite have a role model. I think part of it was being raised in Hawaii where no one cares what your background is because everyone is of mixed race and there’s a sense of equality. I was made acutely aware when I moved to Boston as a college student that this was not the way the rest of the world operated. But anything is possible. And I didn’t see my gender or my race holding me back.
Do barriers still exist for female conductors?
I think the overt barriers are down. Because it’s becoming much more common that it doesn’t present a surprise to audiences or orchestras anymore. That being said, I firmly believe, and this is just my own belief, that men and women have different management styles. It sort of takes an adjustment period to see how people can lead. And there’s also, I think, still a discomfort in firm female leadership. That’s changing, but that certainly has been an issue that’s been brought up. I would, if that were my nature, be as blunt or caustic or demanding in a direct personal way as a male conductor would. My way is to guide and cajole in a way that feels more inclusive, to have the ensemble understand and buy into my vision so we can create something together. In the end, I get exactly what I want anyway. But the way I go about it, I think, might be different from the way a male conductor would.
In recent months, the classical music world, like other areas of entertainment and business, has been rocked by accusations of sexual misconduct involving conductors James Levine and Charles Dutoit. Has harassment ever been a problem for you? Have you ever had a #MeToo moment?
I did early on in my career. I was in an Eastern European country, conducting an opera. I was still wearing skirts at the time and I was in an opera pit, a very deep one. And so to be visible to the singers, the podium was very high. If you were sitting as a member of the string section, the podium was like almost chest level. I had this older gentleman in the front row of strings, he was looking up at me, but not up into my eyes. I finally figured out that he was looking up my skirt. So I was being upskirted by a member of the orchestra. By the time I figured that out, it was really too late to say anything. I didn’t speak the language. I was quite young. I learned a lesson about what can happen, and how I can protect myself from this is to never wear a skirt again. So I haven’t, and I realized that slacks are more comfortable anyway. So it’s not a huge fashion loss on my part.
On the podium, what are the physical demands of being a conductor? How would you describe your conducting style? Are you a jumper?
[Laughs] Physically, we’re waving our arms and moving our bodies. The physical expression runs the gamut from minimalist, where you don’t see a lot of movement, to the Gustavo Dudamels of the world, who are extremely physical. I’m not hyper-aware of what I’m doing because I’m really living in the moment. I’m told that I look like I’m dancing on the podium. I really feel like I should be a physical expression of the music, both toward the orchestra, who respond to my gestures, but also toward the audience because I’m the vessel through which that music is funneled.
You’re driving this big, powerful, music-making machine, 100 some musicians, putting out this tremendous sound. When you’re up there, does it feel powerful?
It’s amazing to be in that sound. I wish people could stand on the podium because you literally have just incredible amounts of decibels blasting at you from all sides. It’s all encompassing. To be able to harness that sound and artistry from that many people, I guess it is a powerful thing. But I really keep going back to my image that to create something out of all of these discrete people, all these separate individuals, and to bring it together, it’s not about me. It has to flow through me.
You were on the podium last December when Rufus Wainwright was performing with the orchestra and principal trumpet Manny Laureano walked off in the middle of the concert. What was that moment like?
I turned around and Manny wasn’t there. That next song had a trumpet solo, so from a musical standpoint, I was extremely distressed. Fortunately, his colleagues really took over and were able to perform the solo and perform the rest of the concert and they distributed the parts in a way that wasn’t musically disruptive. At that point, I didn’t know why Manny was gone. I wondered what the hell happened. But the concert went off without a hitch. To me that was the important part.
Among the pop musicians you’ve worked with, do you have any favorites, or any that really clicked with the orchestra?
Sure. I will name Dessa, who really did an incredible job with the show we did last April. She approached the concert not as “here are a bunch of my hits with orchestra,” but more as a narrative, an inclusive experience in bringing extra musical elements. And the music for the orchestra was done really beautifully, so that while it was clearly Dessa’s work, it was also not just an accompaniment. It was an integral part of a reimagining of her songs.
You’ve built up this expertise in screenings of movies where the orchestra plays the soundtrack live to the audience. How many of these movie performances have you conducted? What are the challenges in doing that?
I do probably 20 to 30 a year. I’ve been doing that for quite a few years now. I have the score, with all the music, that has markings in it that show me where it needs to coordinate. I have a monitor playing that is not what the audience sees. It is the movie, but I have a clock counter in one corner that counts down seconds and milliseconds. In another corner, I have the measure number of the cue we are on and the beat of the measure number that keeps flashing by. I have these things called streamers that come across the screen at high points. Sometimes I have an earpiece in my ear that’s giving me clicks. Essentially you have to coordinate precisely to the movie music that is being produced live. I’ve described it as like playing a demented video game.
Conducting pops concerts, these live movie music performances, outreach performances, does that carry less status in the classical music world? If you want to get to the top tier, do you need to focus on classical?
In 2009, when I became the principal conductor of pops, I made a conscious decision. My agent at that time, I remember him saying, “Sarah, if you make this switch, you’re never going to record your Mahler cycle.” And I said I don’t really care about recording a Mahler cycle. That’s part of why I wanted to explore other options. My career trajectory has taken me away from the purely classical forms. And I’m completely comfortable with that. Because I still do the purely classical stuff, but often in different formats. So I’ve re-created myself as a jack of all trades with a specialty in certain areas. For me, it keeps my career much more interesting. And it also aligns with my belief about the future of orchestras, that they are going to need to incorporate more into their seasons of these nonclassical presentations and to be more responsive to the needs of the community.
I read an article written back in 2008 that said you had more than 1,200 CDs and you listened to your iPod up to 10 hours a week. Another article said you have 10,000 tunes on your computer. What’s on the current playlist for heavy rotation?
The new Björk album, the new Beck album, Lizzo, Kelela, Kesha. What else? I do love the new Taylor Swift album. Please don’t judge me.
Why would we judge you?
Oh, I don’t know. Some people say, “Oh my God, you listen to top 40-type pop stuff.” Yeah, I love that. I love Demi Lovato. I find it fascinating. I really enjoy the whole spectrum of music.