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Conductor Sarah Hicks: ‘I can’t wave to silence, or to an empty room’

Hicks will host the first of six livestreamed concerts by the Minnesota Orchestra tonight, Oct. 2. All are free.

Sarah Hicks leading the Minnesota Orchestra, and several local chefs, in “A Musical Feast” in 2015.
Sarah Hicks leading the Minnesota Orchestra, and several local chefs, in “A Musical Feast” in 2015.
Photo by Courtney Perry

Sarah Hicks has stood confidently before orchestras across the nation and around the world. Closer to home, she has been principal conductor of Live at Orchestra Hall since October 2009. Holding a tiny stick, standing tall on her trademark high heels, she has led the Minnesota Orchestra in Pops concerts, holiday shows, the “Inside the Classics” series, concerts with Dessa, and projects of her own devising, including one involving chefs on stage.

Hicks is an in-demand expert in the booming live-to-picture genre, where a symphony orchestra performs a film score live while the film screens. She equates this highly technical and demanding role to playing “a demented video game.”

Since mid-March, Hicks has been mostly unemployed. If she doesn’t work, she doesn’t get paid. She and her husband, Paul LaFollette, and their Papillon, Pinkerton, live in San Francisco, one of the most expensive cities on the planet. They recently left an apartment they loved for one they could better afford.

In May, Pinkerton, who is also Hicks’ beloved traveling companion (she traveled a lot in pre-COVID times), suffered an accident that required major surgery. In August, Columbia Artists Management, Hicks’ management company and one of the leading agencies for classical music performers, shut down. In September, San Francisco’s sky turned orange.

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Like many artists during the pandemic, Hicks has stepped up her presence on social media, where she has two Instagram accounts and a YouTube channel. She was already writing a blog, but when COVID came, she started another, “Coronavirus Diary: Mental Health in a strange new world,” where she writes frequently and frankly about topics including her own mental health challenges.

Hicks said by phone earlier this week from San Francisco, “I’m bipolar, I’ve had general anxiety disorder, panic disorder, major depression. I’m a survivor of suicide.” (Her father died by suicide in 2001.) “The blog has been the main way I’ve been reaching people, and hopefully not just demystifying but normalizing mental health issues that a lot of us struggle with. I find it increasingly important to have those be in the fore and to be honest and transparent.”

If you were at Orchestra Hall on Friday, Feb. 7, for her “Music and the Mind” concert with co-host Sam Bergman and the orchestra, you heard Hicks talk about mental health and neurodiversity. She calls that “the night I came out as bipolar to both my colleagues and an audience of 1,800 at a concert that I curated.”

Hicks will host Orchestra Hall’s Fall 2020 season, a series of six livestreamed concerts from Orchestra Hall that starts tonight, with a smaller version of the orchestra and no live audience. She’ll conduct the holiday concert on Dec. 18.

As always, this conversation has been edited and condensed.

MinnPost: Let’s start with a complicated question these days: How are you?

Sarah Hicks
Photo by Josh Kohanek
Sarah Hicks
Sarah Hicks: There are so many levels to that question! Career-wise, March 14, if I remember correctly, was the day almost everything got canceled for the next two months. Ever since, week by week, stuff has been disappearing. I saw six months of work dissipate like a soap bubble – POP.

I’m an independent contractor. I have a titled position with the Minnesota Orchestra, but I don’t have a salary. I have nothing from anywhere. I’m the major breadwinner in the family, and we live in San Francisco, so that’s a double whammy.

A lot of people are going through similar things and much more challenging things. I am lucky to still be living in the city I want to live in, even stripped down to the bare basics – rent, groceries and insurance – which is all we can pay for. But we can still do that.

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It’s horrible not to be able to do what I love, to communicate with people and create connections with music. What I do, I feel, provides a service to humanity. My larger mission has always been to bring people into the fold of orchestral music and create those moments of community, opportunities to be human with each other. I can’t create those anymore, and that rips my heart out.

So on many levels, it’s been beyond challenging. It’s not just disruptive. It’s changed the course of my life.

MP: What did your 2020 look like before mid-March?

SH: In the 2018-19 season, I was on the road for 35 weeks. That includes being in Minnesota, because that’s not where I live. [Note: Hicks and LaFollette lived in Minneapolis from 2009-15.] But that’s a huge number of weeks on the road, and it’s a particular lifestyle. It’s a lot of work, and good work. I felt really fortunate to be working that much, with some of the great orchestras of the world.

My 2020-21 season was going to be quite similar. I was expecting to travel and work with orchestras like Vancouver and Cincinnati. I was going to be back in San Francisco, in Dallas – although that didn’t get canceled – and Liverpool and WDR Cologne. I had a lot of gigs. I was really looking forward to a two-week residency at SUNY Potsdam. That dissipated.

MP: You said that Dallas wasn’t canceled?

SH: I was in Dallas in the first week of September [for three concerts with the Dallas Symphony]. They actually had an audience. There were 70 people. You could see each pair of faces. It almost felt more intimate, even within a 2,000-seat hall. That was extraordinary in a way I didn’t expect.

I’m going to Tulsa in two weeks [to guest conduct the Tulsa Symphony]. They’re playing in a baseball field. That’s another grand experiment. Orchestras are finding ways to do things where they can have audiences. Because states create their own protocols, everything’s different. From a performer’s perspective, it’s super challenging to be able to do things in some places but not others.

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MP: What was Dallas like for you?

SH: After six months off the podium, you begin to wonder, do your skills diminish? What will it feel like? Is it going to be foreign?

Musicians can practice their instruments. I can’t wave to silence, or to an empty room, because [conducting] isn’t just waving your arms and getting people to move with you. It’s a very specific set of skills. Where do I put the beat? What’s the reaction time? What kind of hall am I in? What musicians am I working with? What repertoire is it? These are very nuanced skills you can’t practice without other people. My instrument is the orchestra, and I had been without my instrument for six months.

But I will say, when I walked up to the podium, it felt like slipping back into something that I’d never left. I work with that orchestra so much, and I have friends there. Seeing familiar faces, getting on the podium, opening the score, someone asking if the lighting is OK – it was all part and parcel of what I’m accustomed to doing. It was like coming home to a place that has always felt safe and comfortable to me. It’s where I belong.

Even though there were 25 musicians and 70 people in the audience, being surrounded by humanity and sharing what we’re doing makes me feel like all is right with the world, even if it’s for 65 minutes.

MP: What does it mean for you to return to the Minnesota Orchestra for their livestream concerts?

SH: I’ve been in my current position for over a decade, and I was with them as assistant and associate for a few years before that. I was back a couple weeks ago [for a test livestream concert]. It’s such a relief to see the faces of my colleagues, because I’ve missed them terribly. And because we have history and many of them are my close friends, it’s been hard to be away.

I’ve always felt like that orchestra has supported important initiatives and been progressive in terms of how they approach programming, at least for what I do. They’ve been willing to go along with crazy things like “Musical Feast,” a concert with chefs on stage. Not a lot of orchestras would support that kind of stuff.

Sarah Hicks and Minnesota Orchestra violist Sam Bergman interviewing each other during a test livestream concert in mid-September.
Photo by Courtney Perry
Sarah Hicks interviews Minnesota Orchestra violist Sam Bergman during a test livestream concert in September.
And supporting repertoire by historically marginalized composers is putting your money where your mouth is. I’m so proud they’re doing that. I have deep respect for those initiatives.

It’s nice to come back to a group of musicians that are some of the most extraordinary in the world. And I have the right to say that, because I have worked with great orchestras around the world, so I can say that without doubt or hesitation.

It’s good to work for an organization that is using technologies to maintain their connections with audiences and create opportunities for live music. To do this within the context of a pandemic is ambitious and incredibly heartening. So I’m really proud of this orchestra and this organization that I’m part of.

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MP: In your Coronavirus Diary blog, you wrote, “George Floyd was murdered, and Minneapolis, my former hometown, went up in flames.” How has Floyd’s killing affected you?

SH: You saw this horrific murder happen in front of everyone’s eyes. The city that I lived in and knew and loved erupted into flames. This flashpoint of historical anger and inequity happening in the midst of COVID put a point on the fragility of everything.

It was the beginning of a conversation we’ve all been afraid to have. At the same time, my heart was broken for George Floyd and his family, these communities and the city of Minneapolis, and seeing this violence happening. I was heartbroken when I was in Minneapolis two weeks ago and I saw it for the first time.

MP: Did you see Lake Street?

SH: I did, and I cried for 36 hours. My grief doesn’t compare to the grief of the communities who historically have been underserved, and the discrimination that exists, but it was really hard to see what the city had gone through. The boarded-up windows and burned-out buildings.

MP: What is the biggest challenge you’re facing right now?

SH: There are many. One is the steep uncertainty about what’s happening to the industry, when and how it’s going to recover. What it’s going to look like – not just the immediate future, as in the next six months or even the 2021 season. The technologies we’re now taking advantage of, and these new ways of reaching audiences, are not going to go away, I think they’re going to become more integral to what arts organizations do.

Another is reframing what it means to be me. I’m discovering more and more that my skills are not purely musical. I’m making videos and doing interviews. I’m part of a huge project called Journey Through the Senses that’s going to be an international exhibition in Los Angeles in spring of 2022. I’m working on a project with Disney. I’m doing virtual talks and seminars. I’m working on a seminar that applies the skills of being a conductor to being a team leader or project manager.

Sarah Hicks leading the Minnesota Orchestra, with indie rock band Cloud Cult, in 2018.
Photo by Courtney Perry
Sarah Hicks leading the Minnesota Orchestra, with indie rock band Cloud Cult, in 2018.
I taught myself how to use Canva, iMovie and Final Cut Pro. I bought a ring light. It’s increasingly important to have 21st-century media skills. These were new to me, and not necessary early on in my career. So I’m sort of discovering them.

Getting down even more to the nitty-gritty, another challenge is facing my own mental health issues. I’ve been through a lot, and I’m OK. Now that I’m more transparent publicly, I can continue to manage what I’ve managed for many years, but in a way that is more honest with myself and other people.

I’ve been thinking about the experiences I’ve been through as a woman of color, and what the future of that looks like. Perhaps I’ll be more vocal about that.

These are challenges one doesn’t really want to talk about when you’re working in this industry, because you don’t want to imply weakness. But that’s a whole other topic.

MP: How do keep yourself motivated? What advice can you share for other people who are struggling?

SH: Everyone’s struggle is unique and individual. I try to be present every day, even when the present is horrible. You know, we have these fires here. There was that one day in San Francisco when the sky was orange. It was like living on Mars. It was horrifying.

I reminded myself, “If I can tolerate the discomfort of sitting with that, I will discover that I can sit with that.” And that sounds like a Buddhist koan, but if you are present for difficulties, you realize that you can tolerate difficulties. Do that one day at a time and be present for that day. It sounds like such a simple thing, but it’s so hard!

It’s the incremental efforts and activities of every moment and every day that create something larger in life. I am certain that today I can make coffee and drink it and enjoy it. Today I can FaceTime my mom and connect there. Today I can work on some music that I’ll be performing in Tulsa. Today I can look at my dog. My responsibility is to the smallest increment.

If we all could approach our lives that way, I feel like we could all be not just individually but societally in a better place. What can I do in this moment? Sometimes it’s a lot, and sometimes you should just be lying in bed curled up with tea, and that’s OK, too.

Sarah and her dog, Pinkerton.
Courtesy of Sarah Hicks
Sarah and her dog, Pinkerton.
MP: Is there a silver lining anywhere in this for you?

SH: Finding ways to be of service. Sharing my own story [in my blog]. If I journaled, it would do the same amount for me. I don’t need to do this publicly. But if one person reads what I wrote, and it comforts them for one moment, then I’ve accomplished something.

One of the first things we started doing during COVID was getting groceries for our really elderly and very ill neighbors. I realized – well, this is what life is about, to support people and connect with people and be of service to our fellow humans and the world.

What I do as a musician supports that, but how else can I do that, if conducting and performing are taken away from me? That was a really interesting conversation with myself, about what I could do in the meantime or in the future, in addition to my work as a musician.

Another silver lining for me, personally, has been the chance to develop all these other skills, to start working on projects that were about music but not about performance. Redefining myself and what I can do apart from being a conductor on stage. What does it mean to be a communicator? To create content online and get your message across in that way? To be part of a project where I’m a producer? I’m discovering other sides of me and how those can bring me satisfaction and joy.

For me, it’s been an expansion of how I define myself personally, but also in a larger sense, what I can create in the world. When you go from traveling 35 weeks a year, barely having time to breathe and learning scores on a plane, to six months where it is all taken away, you ask, “Who am I? What do I do? What does what I do mean? How can it mean more to more people?”

It’s been a process of discovery. As hard as it is, I’m not going to put down 2020 as a total loss. I’ve learned a lot, and it’s taken me in directions I would not and could not have gone unless I hit hard pause.

MP: What will you do first when you can do whatever you want?

SH: Whatever I want? God, that’s a really hard one … Oh, I’m sorry. I’m starting to cry! I want to embrace all my friends. I can only hug my husband and my brother and his family, because that’s who I’m podded with. But I would embrace everybody. I want to be human again. I want us all to be able to be human again.


Tonight (Friday, Oct. 2) at 8 p.m., Sarah Hicks will host the first of six livestreamed concerts by the Minnesota Orchestra. All are free. Create an account (it’s easy-peasy), then watch on the Minnesota Orchestra website. Osmo Vänskä will conduct a program featuring music by Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Jessie Montgomery. This concert will also be broadcast live on TPT’s MN Channel and Classical MPR.