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Sarah Hicks named Minnesota Orchestra’s pops conductor

In what is being called a new “cross-over” appointment, the Minnesota Orchestra has named Sarah Hicks its new principal conductor of pops and presentations.

The announcement, which was made official today but has been known for some time, reflects the intentions of orchestra officials to go after a broader — and presumably younger — audience via creative programming.

Hicks had been the orchestra’s assistant conductor since 2006, when she became the first woman to be appointed to a conducting position. The assistant conductor job typically focuses on outreach programs, school visits and other so-called “community” activities, as well as some public concerts. But Hicks made marks in other ways. During three seasons, she was involved with a series called “Inside the Classics” that featured narrated concerts and a blog hosted by Hicks and violist Sam Bergman. She also introduced a new holiday offering last year called “A Scandinavian Christmas,” which was a hit and will return for a second round in December.

Until his retirement in 2007, the leader of the orchestra’s pops series was trumpeter Doc Severinsen, who is still listed on the roster as Pops Conductor Laureate. Hicks replaces him, with expanded duties that include program development and other conducting opportunities. During a press conference today, Hicks expressed an ambition to do more “in-house produced programs” and stretch the orchestra’s reach into pop, big-band, jazz and other popular music genres.

Unlike Severinsen, Hicks will be a resident conductor; she and her husband recently bought a home in the Twin Cities. And this month alone she’s conducting a pops program, “Broadway Rocks!” on Oct. 23, a special season sampler concert on Oct. 24, two “Inside the Classics” concerts focusing on Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony  on Oct. 29 and 30, and a special concert with singer-songwriter Ben Folds on Oct. 31.

The appointment of Hicks was in the rumor mill after the orchestra announced in June that she was being replaced as assistant conductor by Courtney Lewis, a British conductor associated with the founding of Boston’s Discovery Ensemble, a chamber ensemble that works with inner-city school children. The ensemble also has a reputation for innovative concerts for adult audiences.

Hicks was born in Tokyo and reared in Honolulu. She studied composition at Harvard as an undergraduate and did post-graduate work in conducting at the Curtis Institute of Music. She founded the Hawaii Symphony in 1991 and led it for five seasons; she also held positions at a number of orchestras around the country. Last month she was appointed associate conductor of the North Carolina Symphony, a post that will require nine weeks of conducting duties a year.

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