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Sarah Hicks conducts the Phoenix Symphony

Sarah Hicks is about to guest-conduct the Phoenix Symphony in an opening-night performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major. Leonard Bernstein’s “Overture to ‘Candide’ ” and a symphonic overview of “West Side Story” also are on the bill.
That’s a major change of pace from how she spent the summer of 2011 — conducting the final two months of Sting’s Symphonicities tour in Europe.
“That’s an experience you can’t duplicate,” Hicks says. “To tour with an artist of that magnitude, with that kind of career.”
Hicks, who was born in Japan, grew up in Hawaii and studied at Harvard and the Curtis Institute of Music, also has worked with Smokey Robinson and one of her favorite modern pop composers, Ben Folds.
“We met about seven years ago in Philadelphia,” she says of Folds. “And he had done shows with an orchestra before but never with a conductor who could sing all of his songs. So he said, ‘Can you work with me when you’re free and I can afford you?’ We’ve done at least a couple shows a year together all over the place. And because of the way his songs have been arranged, it’s actually a good marriage between the orchestra and what he does.”
Hicks is all about forging a marriage that works between the worlds of classical and pop, which suits her role as the principal conductor, pops and presentations, of the Minnesota Orchestra, a position she assumed in 2009.
“I made a very conscious choice about five years ago that I wanted to explore the pop side of the orchestral world,” Hicks says. “There is an opportunity for really interesting collaborations, and it’s a big growth area. We’ve sort of been stuck in a certain mode for many decades, the great American songbook and Broadway, which is all great, but there are ways to work with current artists that I think are enriching to both sides of the musical spectrum. And a lot of fun for me.”
It’s not a common path for classical conductors.
“Some pay lip service to pop,” Hicks says. “Some people do it because it’s part of the job. I chose to become mainly a pop conductor. My background is classical, and I still really enjoy doing it. But the majority of my work is in the pops realm now. And I wouldn’t say most conductors are doing that. They’re still pursuing what they were trained to do, and they might do it (pop) as a side thing. For me, it’s the focus.”
Hicks has always been a fan of pop and alternative music, even playing in a band, a background that can come in handy when conducting the Sting Symphonicities tour, for instance.
“I’m able to sort of bring both worlds together and more importantly speak both languages,” she says. “You can tell a classical musician, “Let’s start at Letter C,” but you’ve got to tell Sting, “We’re going to start at the top of the second bridge.” It literally is a different language, so being able to speak both and being comfortable in both is important.”
To Phoenix Symphony CEO Jim Ward, the bridging of those worlds gives Hicks a strong, well-rounded perspective.
“We’re very excited about bringing Sarah to town,” he says. “She’s a great representative of that up-and-coming generation of conductors in the United States, and she happens to be a woman, which I think is fairly unique in the symphonic world.”
As for the impact being a woman has had on her career, Hicks says, “The classical realm is very traditional by its nature, and there’s a very old-school element to it. Especially when I’m in Europe, I get up on the podium and people look at me like, ‘Oh, you’re the conductor? I thought you were someone’s assistant bringing the scores up.’ That being said, I would say that musicians in general, no matter what they might say or do in the first few seconds, the minute they see that you’re calm, cool, collected and competent, they don’t care what you are. You could be male, female, Martian, White, Black, Green. It doesn’t matter.”
The Beethoven Concerto in D Major (with her former student Elena Uriosteas the featured soloist) was the only piece in place when Hicks signed on to guest-conduct opening night.
“I was thinking of Beethoven as one of the great pinnacles of the German orchestral literature,” Hicks says. “So I thought, ‘OK, What can I bring in that would be an interesting contrast and complement to that?’ And Leonard Bernstein is the pinnacle of American orchestral literature. Then, I thought Brahms’ ‘Hungarian Dances’ would sort of straddle everything to fill that out.”
Hicks calls the “West Side Story” suite a monumental work.
“It’s a Reader’s Digest version of the entire score, essentially, with the best parts in chronological order,” she says. “It’s an orchestral tour de force. And it’s remarkable music. People think of ‘West Side Story’ as a Broadway musical. And it is. But it’s also much more than that. It was a marriage of the classical, jazz and popular music idioms in this brilliantly orchestrated piece of music. So to me, it sort of represents what I represent, a true combination of many different styles of music to create something that is not just an amalgam but a different art form that’s just as great.”

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