It’s a summer night in St. Petersburg, Russia, and Sarah Hicks ’89 is dancing. She’s onstage with Sting in the immense square between the White Palace and the Hermitage, and in front of 100,000 people stretching as far as the eye can see. The camera zooms in on Hicks conducting the band and orchestra as the singer belts out “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” and “Moon Over Bourbon Street” – and there she is on the giant monitors above the stage, dancing.
Welcome to the life of Sarah Hicks. At 47, she’s at the top of her game – principal conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra’s Live at Orchestra Hall popular music series, staff conductor at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, guest conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony and other major orchestras across the United States, Asia, Europe, Russia and Australia. Hailed by The New York Times as part of a new wave of female conductors, she’s as apt to be leading the Houston Symphony in concert with Smokey Robinson, as her own Minnesota Orchestra through live film screenings of “Star Wars,” “Jurassic Park” and “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.” This season, she’ll collaborate with folk music’s Indigo Girls, rapper Dessa and comedy-classical music duo Igudesman & Joo. And that’s just in Minneapolis.
Part of the reason Hicks is in demand seemingly everywhere is because she’s a musical polyglot. Grounded in the classics, she listens to Ariana Grande as much as Mozart, reads In Touch and Entertainment Weekly and trolls Hot Tracks on Apple Music to see what’s new and trending. “It gives me a better perspective of the world at large,” she says. “It makes sense to be able to do that within the context of my career – to be able to conduct music that I’m passionate about because I’m passionate about all music.”
Hicks was 17 the first time she picked up a baton. In her senior year at Punahou, she was a prize-winning pianist, accomplished on the viola – and crippled by tendinitis. Tiny hands and years of daily practice on two instruments had ended her career before it could get off the ground. Conducting was her father’s idea, and it made sense. It was a way of making music by expressing it through others. And it combined the intellectuality she thrived on with budding leadership and vision.
It happened unexpectedly. One day, Michael Allard, Punahou’s Orchestra Director at the time, had to take a phone call and handed her the baton. “You know how very few things in life make sense immediately? How you have to think things through or they require effort? In that moment it felt effortless,” Hicks recalls. “Everything I intellectually understood and understood in my heart I could express with my body, and it came back as a wave of sound by the musicians surrounding me. Even now I feel at home on the podium. You’re standing on a platform in a place of judgment and you should feel stress, but that’s where I feel most comfortable. That’s what I felt at that moment.”
It would be easy to say Hicks’ musical career took off from there. But for a banking lawyer’s daughter, there was no ready roadmap to conducting, and for the young and curious, the world presents so many paths to explore. At Harvard University, Hicks spent as much time on extracurricular music projects as on composition studies. Afterward, still seeking her path, she traveled for a while, studied at conservatory, and then, realizing she was a pretty good composer but a potentially far better conductor, she applied to the conducting program at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. It was headed by Otto-Werner Mueller, at 6 feet 7 imposing in both teaching and physical stature. Mueller unwittingly set the challenge that would help define Hicks’ musical identity. “He told me that women are weak, and Asians are not expressive, but he would accept me to his program anyway,” Hicks says. “I took it to mean this would be a challenge I would face because of who I looked like and what my background was.”
In Mueller’s program, Hicks did her best to conform. Orchestral music is a traditional world, dominated especially then by traditional figures, so on the podium she tied back her hair and boxed herself in suits and flat shoes. Years later, as she grew her resume with associate and assistant conductor jobs at classical orchestras around the country, she realized two things. Principal conductors in the classical realm are overwhelmingly men, which she already knew, but this realm was 50 years behind her ambitions and much harder to break into than she had hoped. And second, her greatest strength as a conductor would come from embracing who she was – a musical polyglot. And a woman. Hicks took the podium as principal pops conductor at Minnesota, succeeding Doc Severinsen, and hasn’t looked back since. “If you’re going to be an artist in the 21st century you have to ask yourself why,” she says. “How will you fit into the market? What do you want to say? The more clarity you have, the easier it will be to find your way because you have a goal, a singular idea.”
Onstage in St. Petersburg, the breeze teases her flowy top and long hair. Arms raised, eyes closed, Hicks is swaying as she conducts Sting’s music, in complete control in front of 100,000 people. She’s in her realm.