A Baton with Sting
Conductor Sarah Hicks spans Prokofiev and the Police.
A decade into her career as a conductor, Sarah Hicks ’93 had “the first of two turning points.” She was conducting a Minnesota Orchestra program featuring the group Pink Martini, the first pops show she’d ever done (see “Stirred, Shaken, and Sung,” January-February 2008, page 17). Some classical musicians look at such work as slumming, but Hicks found it a revelation: “I thought, ‘Wait a second. This is legitimate, well written, evocative. I’m having fun, the orchestra’s having fun. What’s not to like?’”
The second turning point came with her second pops show, conducting the music of singer/pianist Ben Folds, who was amazed that Hicks was enough of a fan to know the words to his songs. Once Folds saw her singing along during rehearsal, he relaxed—and Hicks realized that such crossover ventures could be a way to pursue two passions: her work, and the music she listened to when not working. “Few people with my background and training” attempt this, she explains. “Most pops conductors are arrangers who fell into conducting and probably aren’t classically trained. But I have a composition degree from Harvard and I went to Curtis, so I’ve got the classical training.”
That made Hicks the perfect choice for her latest crossover coup, conducting Sting’s Symphonicity tour on 30 European dates this summer. The show features orchestrated versions of songs from throughout Sting’s career, both solo and with the Police. “The Sting tour is a true marriage of both worlds,” Hicks says. “Presenting his music in this way makes it different, changes the whole nature of what he’s written. That’s a reason to do crossover projects. It shouldn’t be one thing supporting another. You’re trying to make something new.”
Born in her mother’s native country, Japan, Hicks grew up mostly in Hawaii as a child-prodigy pianist, playing music rather than leading it. When she developed chronic tendonitis as a teenager, she thought her music career was over. It hurt too much to play the piano, and her father found her crying in her room one day. His advice: “Stop crying. You can still hold a stick.” She switched to the viola, because it was less painful to play, and joined the high-school orchestra. One day she asked her instructor if she could give conducting a try. He handed over his baton and disappeared for 20 minutes. “That gave me enough time to conduct the first movement of Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony,” she says. “I was hooked.” At Harvard, though she specialized in composition because of music department requirements—her senior thesis, The AIDS Oratorio, set poetry and prose written by people with AIDS to music—she recalls having “a fantastic time conducting: so many groups to work with, doing things like opera and musical theater.”
Hicks’s current posts with the Minnesota Orchestra (principal conductor of pops and presentations), North Carolina Symphony (associate conductor), and Curtis Institute of Music (staff conductor) keep her busy with works from both the classical and modern canon. Between those responsibilities and endeavors such as Symphonicity, her schedule can be mind-boggling. A typical workday involves rehearsals, studying music she’ll conduct next week, writing an arrangement she’ll conduct next month, and working on a contract for an event next year.
Arranging is her professional specialty, with a special emphasis on pop/classical projects. One recent work was an “’80s-themed show” (“the 1980s, not the 1880s,” she quips) that takes the likes of Dexy’s Midnight Runners and Cyndi Lauper into the classical world. “I think it’s a more interesting process than conducting something for the fiftieth time,” she says. “I branch out into everything I can. The future of classical music has to be more inclusive than it’s been in the past, and that’s part of my vision for myself. I want to work until I retire, and I don’t intend to retire until I die. We shouldn’t just be playing the great classical composers. Arts organizations have a curatorial responsibility, yes, but they also have to serve the community—and survive. Those go hand in hand. Now we’re scrambling to become relevant. This is a conversation we should have been having generations ago.”
With a foot in both the pop and classical worlds, Hicks is just the person to lead the discussion. Some years ago, she was briefly in a garage band with other classical musicians. And even though she claims not to be much of a singer, Hicks was the lead vocalist because, she says, “There’s something therapeutic about screaming into a microphone.
“Part of me always wanted to be a rock star, which is why I’m attracted to the kind of projects I do,” she admits. “I find it satisfying to be onstage with my hair down, in four-inch heels and sequined tank top—and I dare you to find any other conductor who regularly performs in that—listening to a standing ovation.”