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Curiocity: Q&A: Hicks On Ben Folds, Broadway And Beethoven

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Sara Boyd Sara Pelissero
Sara Pelissero joined the WCCO web team in August of 2009. You can...
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In her first month as the principal conductor of pops and presentations at the Minnesota Orchestra, Sarah Hicks has dissected Beethoven’s infamous Symphony No. 6, took Broadway classics to new heights and organized a meeting with a piano man.

All of this, as she maintains her position as the first woman to hold a conductor post in the Minnesota Orchestra’s history. A position she secured in 2006, when she joined the orchestra as an assistant conductor.

Not bad.

But that’s just the beginning. Hicks’ new role leading the orchestra’s signature U.S. Bank Pops Season will continue through 2012-13. Plenty of time to be creative and mix in what she calls a “sonic boom” with the Minnesota Orchestra.

WCCO: So you were born in Tokyo and raised in Honolulu? What brought you to Minnesota?

Sarah Hicks: I’ve been living on the mainland, U.S., for about 18 years now. I moved for college when I was 18 and went to Boston. And I’ve lived all over. I’ve lived in seven different cities in the past 10 years, I think. From Richmond, Va. to Prague in the Czech Republic. So I’ve been all over.

Musicians don’t have a lot of choice as to where they live, because there are really very, very few jobs. We are excited to be fully employed with one. So the first reason I moved here three years ago, was because I got a job here as assistant conductor. I was still living in Virginia … kind of. My husband lived there, so I was commuting back and forth and I joked that I lived on Northwest Airlines. But now, I’m here permanently because of this new position.

It’s a lot of possibilities and a lot more responsibility and work. I just bought a house, so I’m here a little bit more permanently now and a little less on Northwest Airlines. Or Delta. Or whatever it’s called now.

WCCO: So when did you find out about your new role at the Minnesota Orchestra and what were your reactions to the appointment?

SH: It’s been a long process, but it was announced on Oct. 12. It’s really exciting because to me, it shows a direction that an orchestra can go and an area that there’s room for expansion in so many interesting projects and so many different ways of really utilizing an orchestra because that’s a really huge group of musicians with an immense amount of talent.

Having this position lets me plan ahead for seasons and think about artists that I would love to see come here and the kinds of shows I want to see with an orchestra. So it’s the whole flip side of the classical side of things. It’s the other things. You know, there are a lot of possibilities there. And that’s exciting for me.

WCCO: And for others as well, especially those who may think of the Minnesota Orchestra as more traditional and classic, or orchestras in general.

SH:
Sure, I mean, that’s the thing. This orchestra can play Beethoven or Brahms beautifully and they’ve done so for many, many years. But they can also play, for instance, movie music. We’re doing a lot more of that. And for many people, that’s their exposure to classical music, is through the movies. It’s accessible and it’s interesting. We’re doing a whole Sounds of the Cinema Festival in January.

So I think we’re doing a fully filmed “Wizard of Oz” with music. So there’s innovative ways of using musicians in a very, very different way. I want people to be able to see the orchestra in a different light. It’s not this sort of scary thing where you have to dress up and be really quiet but they play different kinds of music, really, really, well. I think that’s really fun for people.

WCCO: What exactly is a pops and presentation conductor and what does your new role mean?

SH: Well, the easy part is, I conduct most of the pops and presentations. But I think the more interesting part of my job is, a lot of pops conductors, really just do pops. Work with big name jazz artists that come in and that’s it. But I have my own series called “Inside the Classics,” and we’re actually in rehearsal for that right now this week and we have concerts (Thursday) and Friday. That’s a classical concert, but with a big twist.

We spend the first half of the concert talking about the piece, talking about the composer, talking about the people on stage who play music, just breaking it down and talking to people like, “Hey, here’s Beethoven. Here’s what he was thinking. Here’s this trombone player who’s going to tell you something funny about his instrument.”

That’s the first half and then we come back and play the whole piece. We’re doing Beethoven’s sixth symphony. So it’s a really different way of looking at classical music but it gives you sort of a full concert experience. So that’s something very different that I’m doing that most, I think, pops conductors aren’t doing.

The other part is planning for future seasons. Looking towards, which artists do we want to book, what kind of shows do we want to produce, what kind of music do we want to present. So it’s planning and conducting. Also, I script my own shows, so I talk a lot during my concerts. I write my own scripts, I memorize my own scripts. … So it’s really being involved in every aspect of production. And it’s really producing a show, it’s very different from just walking on stage and doing a concert, there’s a lot more to do.

WCCO: And speaking of artists, you have Ben Folds coming this weekend. He may not be someone you’d typically think of when you think of orchestras, but it seems like a great combination.

SH: Sure, and yeah, he actually started doing these orchestra shows back in 2005 in Australia. And he had a lot of his songs … arranged for an orchestra. His songs are recognizable, but he doesn’t play them necessarily exactly the way he would do it just with his fans.

So it’s really just for orchestra. I’ve worked with him a lot. I met him about a year and a half ago. We got along so great. And he said to me, can you come and do as many shows as you can for me? And I said, yes. So we’ve been working together for the past 15, 18 months. And I really wanted him to come here. So this is the last stop on the tour he’s doing. I was at the beginning of the tour with the national symphony in Washington, D.C. so I get to see him again.

It’s not what people conventionally think of an orchestra show. But the point is, he got someone to arrange his music for orchestra and it’s done really well. It’s fun for the orchestra, it’s fun for him and it’s fun for me. And the audience is going to go bananas, because I mean, who doesn’t love Ben Folds? You wouldn’t come to the concert if you didn’t love Ben Folds. It’s kind of a neat way to introducing people to something they may have never heard before. I think 72 percent of our tickets for this concert went to people who have never heard the orchestra. So that’s a huge number, a huge number.

WCCO: What are you hoping those newcomers to the orchestra take away from the experience?

SH: I hope the audience gets that all music is music. We tend to differentiate, well this is alternative rock, or this is classical music. But musicians are musicians and there’s something very exciting about live music, no matter what genre it is. And for that concert it’s going to be a meeting of the ultimate alternate rock guy and one of the ultimate orchestras of this country.

It’s going to be this great show because the orchestra adds to his music what he can’t add just playing at the piano. Just much more of this sonic blast and it makes the music more exciting. And I think that’s the best part of collaborating with someone — to make something much more than it could be by itself. It’s going to be a blast … and he might be in a costume.

WCCO: Right, since it is Halloween after all.

SH: Yes, exactly. We’re looking forward to see what he comes up with.

WCCO: Think you’ll wear a costume, too?

SH: You know, I might. Yeah. Because why not. It’s a show. We want people to enjoy themselves. That’s what I want people to know. Music and performing is all about having a great time. That’s the most important thing we do here.

WCCO: As far as the future is concerned, what are your plans for the pops orchestra?

SH: We’re looking at younger artists who are just emerging, like Josh Ritter. We’re looking also at established artists who have been to the Twin Cities but not with orchestra. Like Pink Martini is a great band. And then we’re thinking of doing a lot of concerts in house.

You know, there’s a show out there already right now about Woodstock, that’s set for orchestra. So finding an era of music and finding an era of music and finding tunes that people will be nostalgic about. And finding a way to set them for orchestra to make it this kind of fun and lively event. There’s nothing like the sonic boom of an orchestra. It’s 90 people on stage so it really adds to any genre of music.

WCCO: Speaking of different artists, you just came off conducting the Broadway Rocks performance that introduced music from popular Broadway shows with the sounds of an orchestra. What was that like for you?

SH: A lot of Broadway pit orchestras are very small. There might be 15 to 20 people. That’s usually how you hear Broadway, with a very small orchestra. And this was literally 70 people on stage. It was just much more of a really exciting sonic blast. And we had the Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus, too. And they were in the back and they actually came out in the end wearing hippy clothing because we were singing “Aquarius” and it was hilarious. They were so funny.

It just adds so much more because if you go online to like, emusic.com and try to download “Wicked,” you get it with someone playing synthesizer and someone singing over it with a fake orchestra. And then you hear a tune from “Wicked” with a real orchestra and you’re like, “Oh my God, that’s what it’s supposed to sound like. With all those colors and all that nuance.” It’s just so much more. That’s why we have orchestras.

WCCO: Since you’ve started this new position, what would you say has been the most rewarding experience so far? And then on the other side, what’s been the most challenging?

SH: There’s just a lot more responsibility in terms of planning, because that is on my shoulders, too. And if things don’t go right, then it becomes my responsibility too. So it’s sort of a Catch 22. Isn’t it in “Spiderman” when they say, “With great power comes great responsibility?” I was really just thinking about that when I took this position. It’s really true. I’m more accountable to things. Because before I could say, “Well, if it doesn’t work, it’s OK.” Now, I’m like, “If it doesn’t work, well that was my show.”

It’s faces of the same coin in a way. … That’s just a great quote from “Spiderman.”

WCCO: Anything else you wanted to add before we go?

SH: I would just say that I think young people are sometimes, maybe overwhelmed by the thought of going to the orchestra. Maybe there’s a protocol, or you don’t know what to do or you might not know anything about the music. The nice thing about the pops side of things is it’s probably music that you do know. You can pick and choose your shows. You can clap whenever you want. If you feel like wooting, you can woot.

You could just jump up in your seat and have a good time because that’s sort of what we want to do with that series. It’s a good introduction to the orchestra. So I think you should come and check us out. Because … we’re not scary.

Sara Boyd is a web producer and columnist at WCCO.COM.

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