Spotlight on Sarah Hicks
Over the past 18 months, the Minnesota Orchestra—like many performing arts organizations—faced challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Through the strong support of donors, the Orchestra quickly adapted by offering live, digital performances at a time when the joy and power of music was most needed. These televised and livestreamed concerts were hosted by Sarah Hicks, the Orchestra's principal conductor of the Live at Orchestra Hall series. Accustomed to wearing many hats in her work, Sarah has spearheaded projected with artists like Dessa and Cloud Cult and conducted live scores in the popular Movies & Music series.
We had the opportunity to reflect on the past year with Sarah, explore how these concerts came together, and discuss how interconnected we all are.
You hosted 18 livestreamed Minnesota Orchestra concerts over the past year. Is there one performance that sticks out to you most?
I have to say that the most memorable was New Year’s Eve, not necessarily for the music, or even for the performance. It came at the end of such a surreal and challenging and terrifying year, and just to look at the faces of my colleagues, realizing that somehow we had made it to the last day of 2020, that somehow we were all still here making music, that somehow we could continue to create these moments of joy for our audiences—it was moving for me.
We’ve heard from donors that these concerts helped them get through this difficult time. Did you find the same?
Having these concerts every other week gave me a sense of schedule in a year that felt suspended in time! It was important for me to have the tangible goals of scripting and preparing for a broadcast. And for me, it was also an opportunity to hear live music on a regular basis—something I was so used to hearing week-in, week-out—and being able to experience human beings creating sound, in person, was really meaningful.
How did it feel to step out on stage each night to an empty Orchestra Hall? Was it hard to imagine an audience of thousands watching you live from their own homes?
I actually got used to it rather quickly, believe it or not. I just imagined the thousands of people behind the camera, and just tried to speak as if I were speaking to each person one-on-one. It was more challenging when I was both conducting and hosting; I’m so used to feeding off the energy of the audience as a performer that it took a conscious effort to generate the kind of focus and tension that a live audience brings.
As orchestras around the world return to more regular in-person concerts, how do you see these virtual concerts playing a role in orchestras’ futures?
Virtual concerts have the ability to reach audiences beyond those in local communities, and I think it’s marvelous that people will have the opportunity to hear orchestras from so many markets. Coming out of a year during which we encountered so many new and innovative ways to enjoy music, it’s vital for any orchestra to support a significant virtual presence, and the possibilities of not just live broadcasts but of produced performance content is really exciting.
In addition to memorizing all your lines for your hosting duties, you were also regularly seen on stage conducting, and even performing (sometimes all three in one night)! Through this whole new process, what was the most challenging aspect of your many jobs?
Truth be told, the scenario you describe could also describe some of the live concerts I’ve performed in past seasons, which found me speaking to our audiences as well as performing. That being said, conducting, delivering a memorized script, and playing an instrument—three very different skills, using three very different parts of my brain! The most challenging aspect was being able to smoothly switch between those skills, while being mindful of looking into the right camera.
You were also the writer for the Livestreams you hosted, providing an overview of the programs and details about each piece. What were the challenges and rewards of that for you?
I’ve written all of my life, and I’ve been a public speaker since my teens, so creating a script is something that has been familiar to me for years. The challenge was fitting it within the constraints of broadcast needs, in terms of timing and content. I actually find that I’m at my most creative when presented with limits, so I rather enjoyed working within the matrix of a live broadcasts.
During my writing, I was also able to consult with many of my colleagues, musicians and staff, and glean their insights and beliefs, and having these exchanges contributed to my writing and allowed me to more deeply understand many of the people in our organization, and for that I’m grateful.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the Orchestra faced uncertainty about how to continue bringing music to its audience members. How has the support from the donor community impacted the Orchestra during this past year?
So many orchestras completely shut down, and many musicians were furloughed. I think it is tremendous that our Orchestra sustained its support to its musicians and created opportunities for continued performance. The fact that we were able to have these live broadcasts was so important for musicians to be able to keep performing with each other, maintain their skills and feel a sense of purpose. The support from our donor community quite literally kept the music alive and helped keep our musicians going on all levels. As musicians, as performers, our greatest charge is to use our talents to create meaningful and moving experiences for others, and thanks to donor support we were able to keep doing so.
What are you looking forward to most in the year and season ahead?
Of course, I’m looking forward to all of my performances in Orchestra Hall, and to producing new concerts for the Minnesota Orchestra. I’m also excited to work with my friends in orchestras around the world, whom I’ve missed so much this last year. And to further develop my writing and advocacy of both mental health and mindfulness (you can read dozens of pieces at coronavirusdiary.net— I’ve also started a Musical Mindfulness series over on my YouTube). But most of all, I’m looking forward to connecting with people and building community around music. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s the interconnectivity of all of us, and as an artist my greatest wish is to keep building on this understanding.