Photo by Eliesa Johnson
Jason DeRusha and Sarah Hicks
Random Fact: The music on Hicks’s iPod right now includes Bon Iver, Flying Lotus, Jay Z, Kanye, Rosanne Cash, Ben Folds, and Tom Waits.
Sarah Hicks is often introduced as “the first woman to hold a principal conductor position in the history of the Minnesota Orchestra.” But she doesn’t want to be a poster child for gender equity; she wants to create amazing concerts. After the long orchestra lockout, Hicks is back where she belongs: onstage leading musicians in pops and Broadway performances that sell tickets like crazy and make the old-school cringe.
The restaurant: Vincent A Restaurant was one of the Nicollet Mall hotspots that suffered during the Minnesota Orchestra lockout.
What we ate: Hicks always orders the same thing: the Nicoise salad. I had the steak tartare—perfection.
My lunch date: Conducting is extremely physical, so in addition to running, Hicks lifts weights and does yoga. “I wear sleeveless tops,” she says. “The guns gotta look good!”
Let me guess: Your mom made you take piano lessons when you could barely reach the keys.
I was one of those kids who practiced three hours a day. When I was 8, I was writing pieces for the piano. I remember one called “Le Cheval,” a little trotting piece.
Why didn’t you become a pro pianist?
I was on track. I won lots of competitions in Hawaii where I grew up, and in Japan where my mom’s family lived. But I injured my hands in my late teens.
A classic turning point.
I was 17 and crying in my room and my dad said, “You can still hold a stick. Stop crying.” I went to my high school orchestra teacher who handed me his baton and left the room. We were doing Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony. I was hooked.
What is it about conducting?
It’s the sound coming at you—you can’t create that kind of sound as an individual player. It’s also a matter of sculpting things as they’re happening. There’s also the matter of convincing people to do what you want—I love that. [Laughs.]
You don’t just stand up there and wave?
You have to think about programming a season, about fundraising, about managing 90 people in front of you and 2,000 people behind you in the audience.
It’s probably similar to being a head coach. Game day matters, but . . .
It’s only part of it. All your work happens in rehearsal. You pick things apart, put them back together.
Has it been more of an issue that you’re young or that you’re a woman?
I’ve hit 40, let’s say that. But I’m much younger than people I’m conducting. Combine that with being a woman.
Many female leaders feel pressure to look a certain way.
A lot of conductors cut their hair short and wear suits. I wear jeans, leggings, my hair is always down, I like lipstick, I wear big cuff bracelets. People judge that, too—not just that I’m a woman, but that I’m a girly-girl.
It feels dumb asking you about inspiring the next generation: Of course a minority woman can lead an orchestra.
I’m not representing female-kind and half-Asians—I’m just trying to do my thing.
What do you do for fun?
I like to eat.
Come on, look at you. You don’t eat. I run, so I can eat. I’m training for a half-marathon.
What is it about running?
There’s a rhythmic aspect. You get in the groove and get out-of-body. The best performances are like that. When things come together on the podium, it flows without effort. It’s very much like runner’s high.
You collaborate with pop artists: Who do you want to work with next?
Bon Iver would be interesting—imagine the soundscapes. There are bands that are already orchestral like Arcade Fire. Fiona Apple would be fascinating.
We could have a twerk-off. [Laughs.] It’s the iPod-shuffle generation. People want to curate their own experience.
Is an orchestra a museum or a living, breathing thing?
That’s exactly the question. When I work overseas, my visa isn’t stamped “great artist,” it’s stamped “entertainer.” In the end, what I want to do is have people see a concert and have a good time.
Jason DeRusha anchors WCCO-TV’s morning and noon news. He also asks some really good questions.