Tinseltown Talks: Conductor Sarah Hicks and Ennio Morricone’s ‘spaghetti westerns’

  • Sarah Hicks conducts the Minnesota Orchestra in 2014. COURTESY GREG HELGESON 

For the Athol Daily News
Published: 7/24/2018 11:09:58 PM
Modified: 7/24/2018 11:09:59 PM

Orchestra directors develop their own musical passions and preferences. While conductor Sarah Hicks can equally handle traditional classics or pop, she has a distinct fondness for the latter, and especially, movie soundtracks.

“I love conducting film music, but I’m super comfortable with rock, pop, hip-hop, country, classical — anything you can lay at me,” said Hicks from her home in San Francisco, Calif. “I made a decision about a decade ago to focus on the pops side, because it’s more interesting for me to collaborate with musicians of different genres.”

Currently principal conductor of the Live at Orchestra Hall concerts with the Minnesota Orchestra (see www.sarahhicksconductor.com), Hicks’ busy schedule frequently takes her away from the West Coast.

“I’m usually flying somewhere at least 2 weeks out of every month, sometimes it’s 3 or 4 weeks,” she said.

A guest conductor for some of the world’s top orchestras, she was invited to Copenhagen in January to lead the Danish National Symphony Orchestra in a program of music from westerns and gangster movies. A featured composer included Ennio Morricone, the 89-year-old prestigious Italian master whose music has been used in more than 500 movies, including the popular ‘spaghetti westerns’ from the 1960s.

“The Danish National Symphony may not be well-known in the U.S., but they’re one of the great orchestras of Europe,” said Hicks. “They knew I worked with movies and put together a wonderful selection.”

The program included several Morricone pieces, such as his haunting music from classic westerns “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly,” “A Fist Full of Dollars” and “Once Upon a Time in the West.”

“Panoramic,” answers Hicks, when asked to describe Morricone’s music in one word.

“He’s a very thematic composer who creates a theme and uses it in many different guises throughout a film, which is a very classical way of using melody,” she said. “He’s brilliant at creating a particular mood in a scene.”

But like many early soundtrack composers whose work was sometimes dismissed by classical musicians, Morricone’s talent wasn’t always appreciated.

“Today he’s a rock star in Europe, and his concerts sell out,” said Hicks. “Musicians now respect non-classical music that’s well-written, and they recognize film composers with great compositional technique.”

The arrangers of the Copenhagen concerts also displayed the lighter side of symphonic productions by incorporating visual effects into the January production led by Hicks.

“We had cutouts of people with guns around the concert hall,” she recalled. “And at the very end of the show, the percussionist and timpani players had a pretend shootout duel.”

Other theatrical elements included musicians donning cowboy hats. And even mezzo-soprano Tuva Semmingsen embraced the western theme by wearing a revolver earring as she sang the lilting “wah-wah-wah” refrain at the opening of “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly Suite.”

Hicks plans to continue bringing movie music to the public. And unlike the somewhat serious and intense demeanor often perceived of maestros, her stage presence is generally relaxed — she clearly has fun at the conductor’s podium.

“Music was written to be enjoyed,” she says. “It’s my responsibility to have a good time myself so that the musicians and audiences can, too. I want to bring this amazing music to people who are not usually exposed to it. That really is my mission in life.”

Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns and interviews for more than 700 newspapers and magazines. See www.tinseltowntalks.com





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