It was big news in the classical music world last summer when Marin Alsop was made the music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. With that appointment, she became the first woman to lead a major symphony in the United States. Because of the inroads Alsop and other female conductors have made into a job heavily dominated by men, Sarah Hatsuko Hicks says it's no longer unusual to see a woman on the podium.
"Attitudes have definitely changed a great deal," she says. "So I don't think that I'll be limited because of my gender. I don't think about it at all. I think most of my colleagues don't either, which is nice."
Hicks says musicians don't care who you are as long you know the score. As she's risen through the conducting ranks with stints at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, Reading Symphony, National Symphony and Philadelphia Singers, she hasn't noticed much of a glass ceiling limiting her advancement. But there have been some issues with management.
"You come across generational issues," Hicks says. "It's not that they don't think you're competent. It's just that no one has seen a young, female conductor. Maybe I'm the first they've seen, so it's odd for them and they don't know how to interact sometimes. It's not a glass ceiling per se. I'm really of the first generation of conductors where it's fairly normal to be a female conductor."
According to the American Symphony Orchestra League, there are currently four women in assistant/associate conductor positions among the top 26 symphonies, including the Minnesota Orchestra. Marin Alsop is the only female music director in the top 26.
Women started to appear among the ranks of staff conductors as long ago as the late '70s and early '80s. It's taken till now for the Minnesota Orchestra to join that club because, according to General Manager Robert Neu, there weren't any viable female candidates from which to choose.
Neu says Hicks' appointment demonstrates a generational shift. Of the dozen or so candidates invited to audition for the assistant conductor position, he says three were women. He says gender wasn't an issue in the appointment of Hicks.
"For me that novelty has long worn off. We have a long relationship with Marin Alsop and I can't speak for everybody, but as far as I was concerned the male/female thing wasn't an issue. It was never even talked about. It just happened."
Neu says the orchestra chose Hicks because she's a seasoned conductor who is very efficient during rehearsals. He adds that she's a warm, approachable person, has a good sense of humor and communicates well with both the orchestra and audiences.
Hicks was born in Tokyo and grew up in Honolulu with dreams of being a concert pianist. But she had small hands. By the time she was in high school she developed tendinitis trying to play pieces meant for much larger hands. She was discouraged, and depressed at the thought that her music career was over at 16.
"My father said, 'Your hands can still hold a baton,' which was an epiphanal moment for me," Hicks recalls. "I thought, 'My God, I could do that.' One day my high school orchestra conductor had to take a phone call from overseas and he said, 'Sarah, here's a baton. Why don't you take the rehearsal?' So at 16 having this thrown in front of you, it was rather amazing. I thought, 'Oh my God, this is it!' And that's when I started thinking about conducting."
Hicks joins Music Director Osmo Vanska and Associate Conductor Mischa Santora on the Minnesota Orchestra conducting staff. As the assistant conductor, Hicks conducts the young people's concerts as well as few pops concerts. She works in the schools and helps raise money for the orchestra.
Her most important duty, however, is probably the most thankless: serving as a cover conductor. A cover conductor is similar to an actor's understudy. She must learn the score, attend all the rehearsals and be prepared to lead the orchestra if necessary. Hicks was the cover conductor for the Minnesota Orchestra's season opening concerts. Had Music Director Osmo Vanska fallen ill, she would have been ready to conduct Beethoven's "Eroica" symphony.
"You can't have a concert without a conductor. You can maybe have a concert missing a cellist, but you certainly can't do it without the conductor. So it's really being prepared to jump in at a moment's notice and knowing the repertoire, preparing it weeks ahead of time. So that's really a big portion of the job."
Hicks splits her time between the Minnesota Orchestra and the Richmond Symphony in Virginia, where she has holds a similar position as associate conductor. There she leads an informal concert series called Kicked Back Classics, which takes the symphony to such unlikely places as heavy metal rock clubs.
"One time she rode in on a Harley right up to the podium and started conducting," recalls Jim Jacobson, principal tympani of the Richmond Symphony.
Jacobson says Hicks is the perfect person to bring classical music to a venue where people are used to hearing local bar bands like Immortal Avenger and Bullistic instead of Brahms and Bartok.
"She has a really good rapport with the audience," he says. "She's someone who's young and hip, if you will. She can really relate to a crowd in a rock club or in a casual setting. And she's able to explain what we're doing to an audience of young professionals or kids or whatever it is."
Hicks is no stranger to rock music. She's a member of a garage band called Cowpath 40, made up of classical musicians from Minnesota, Virginia, Texas, New York and Berlin. She says the group's music is unsuitable for radio airplay since it would require bleeping every fifth word or so.
"I'm the lead singer, the lead screamer," laughs Hicks. "I Iike to say, 'You gotta head bang sometimes, you know. It's good for the soul.'"
Hicks makes her debut on the Orchestra Hall podium Wednesday when she conducts her first Young People's Concerts. She says these concerts are important in developing future classical musicians and listeners; she says you have to catch them while they're young. She's also proud to be the role model she didn't have when she was growing up.
"I certainly like to be up in front of a great orchestra, in front of 2,000 kids and have the girls see, 'Oh, look, that's totally possible, that's completely normal.' I would've liked to have seen that when I was growing up. Now I can provide that for another generation."
Hicks has enjoyed her first few weeks as assistant conductor with the Minnesota Orchestra and says the experience will help her move toward her career goal: becoming the next female music director of a major American symphony.