On Live Music for Star Wars Film: Sarah Hicks To Conduct The Cleveland Orchestra

Sarah Hicks (sarahhicksconductor.com)
Sarah Hicks (sarahhicksconductor.com)

by Jarrett Hoffman; published on ClevelandClassical.com August 27, 2019. Used by permission.

Film music leaves an impression on many of us at an early age, and Sarah Hicks was no exception. The principal conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra’s “Live at Orchestra Hall” series, Hicks is also known as an in-demand guest conductor, particularly in the genre of in-concert film.

“I saw the original Star Wars movies in theaters as a very young child,” Hicks said during a telephone interview. That wasn’t the spark to her interest in music — she was already playing the piano by age five — but it was still an experience she called transformative. “I remember those movies, I remember that music. It was a huge part of my childhood.”

Hicks will revisit The Empire Strikes Back, the second film from the original Star Wars trilogy, during screenings of the film with The Cleveland Orchestra on August 30, 31, and September 1 at 7:30 pm at Blossom. (Fireworks to follow each performance, weather permitting.) That score by John Williams introduced the world to “The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme)” — it’s hard to imagine Star Wars without it — and to “Yoda’s Theme.”

“Of the original trilogy, Empire is certainly my favorite story, and a lot of people’s favorite film,” Hicks said. “I think the marriage of music and narrative in this one is especially powerful.”

She noted the ways that Williams plays with Vader’s Theme. “He uses it very early on in the film. The tune is played by a piccolo quite softly for maybe five seconds — it’s a beautiful foreshadowing. He always gives us these musical Easter eggs sprinkled throughout. And if there’s something happening in the film that’s not apparent to the eye, it’s in the music. I find that particularly interesting.”

Hicks has conducted Empire before, and she knows this movie, not just the music. (She’s pictured left with the charming robot character R2-D2 — and a lunch box!) But if a conductor weren’t already familiar with a film, she said, their preparation would make them familiar.

“We have a study video because the coordination has to be so precise, and preparing for the concert, you have to watch the film maybe twenty times. So you get to know it really, really well.” She hasn’t yet come to hate any movie after watching it that much. “But ask me in a couple years, and maybe I’ll come across something,” she said.

Hicks has collaborated with big names across many genres, including Hilary Hahn and Rufus Wainwright. During the summer of 2011, she conducted the final leg of Sting’s “Symphonicities Tour.”

“That was amazing,” she said. “He’s a great musician, but he’s also a really fascinating guy.” She described Sting as humble, genuine, and kind. “It’s nice to come across people like that, who are stars in their realm — whether it be pop, classical, or movies — but who still have their humanity. It’s important to me as a musician and as an artist to work with people that I can relate to.”

One of her responsibilities with the Minnesota Orchestra has been heading the “Inside the Classics” series, which recontextualizes classical music through different themes. One program in June, titled “Love That Dare Not Speak,” explored short works by eleven LGBTQ composers, from Tchaikovsky to Higdon.

Hicks noted if you’re not familiar with orchestral music, it can be “sort of weird, scary, and maybe elitist-sounding.” But when a program shows, for example, composers who struggled with their gender or sexual identity, “then all of a sudden you can relate with those works of art on a different level.”

Other news in Minnesota: the Orchestra’s recording with hip hop artist Dessa, and Hicks on the podium, will be released on November 8 on the Doomtree label. “It’s the first-ever orchestral recording on a hip hop label,” Hicks said. She called Dessa (pictured below with the conductor) an amazing artist. “Her collaborations with orchestra were in the right spirit: of trying to invent a new art form. It’s creative and awesome, and she’s just a great person too.”

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