Sarah Hicks
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Reel Music

Conductor Sarah Hicks on the growing interest in orchestras playing popular film scores. She conducts The Little Mermaid with the Dallas Symphony this weekend.

published Thursday, February 21, 2019

Photo: Disney
The Little Mermaid


Dallas — Over the last decade or so, movie scores have migrated to an unusual venue: the concert hall. Click Track and other technologies have allowed orchestras to accompany beloved and famous films, giving new exposure to the music, a novel approach to viewing the motion picture and potentially another source of audiences for the ensembles.

This weekend, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra brings Disney's first great animated feature of the “new era” to the Meyerson Symphony Center with a viewing and performance of The Little Mermaid (1989), conducted by Sarah Hicks. She is Principal Conductor of Pops and Presentations for the Minnesota Orchestra, and Staff Conductor at the Curtis Institute of Music. In her prestigious career, Ms. Hicks has developed a specialty in the movie/orchestra hybrid.

"I was definitely an early adopter [of the technology]," she explains during a phone interview given while settling into her Dallas hotel room. "I thought the whole thing was less commonplace and an unusual skill, and one that the audiences have really taken too. I love that the conductor has to be a multi-tasker and I really enjoy incorporating different parts of my brain into the performances."

The musicians in the orchestra were a harder sell than the concert audiences at first. "It was all so new with a different set of disciplines. But ultimately, we were playing this beautiful music and, just like the audiences, the players loved the films as well."

Sarah Hicks

Now if not commonplace, these concerts are frequent. Most major orchestras it seems try to schedule film score performances on a regular basis. Next season, some of the movies scheduled in this series at the DSO are Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and Coco.

"It has definitely attracted a new type of audience," says Ms. Hicks. "Depending on the film, they may be younger and they may be film buffs or Star Wars fans or Disney lovers. We hope that they will enjoy the experience so much that they will come back to the orchestra even when a movie isn't playing."

When asked if there was any pushback to performing an animation instead of a film masterpiece, such as a Lawrence of Arabia or a Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Ms. Hicks was adamant in her support of the Disney film. "The score [by Allen Menken and Howard Ashman who won an Academy Award for their work] is great music. There are these wonderful songs and the background is very integrated into the action on screen. Also people know the music [of the Disney films] and there is a large nostalgia factor. The amazing thing about a feature like Little Mermaid is how through-composed it is. There is music playing in all but a few minutes of the ninety minutes of screen time. So it is very popular and very well received."

The technology has its drawbacks. The conductor is constrained by the film itself, so has to rely on the cinematic timing rather than her own expressive interpretation. But even that can enhance the experience according to Ms. Hicks. "You really have to know the film and the score extremely well. There is always leeway, as you get to know the pacing of the action. You might be able relax a little knowing that there is a stretch where you can catch up. In Little Mermaid, which is essentially a musical, of course you have to be completely in time with the songs, but the rest of the score is more flexible than you would think. It is amazing how much expression was built into the timing of the animation as well."

As for technical glitches, they are fortunately not frequent—but they can occur. "The whole click track is run through a cordless pack that goes into my ear. In Cleveland one time, where we were performing Little Mermaid for a crowd of 10,000, there was radio interference and I suddenly heard a huge blaring sound through my earpiece and then nothing. I had lost the whole click track. Fortunately, I was able to continue through the film with visual cues until the track could be restored."

She feels that people attending an orchestral performance of a movie for the first time should expect an emotional punch that even the best recorded sound can't duplicate. "The orchestra loves to hear the audience reaction," she explains. "There are gasps and laughter and even applause for the action in the movie and that feeds energy into the orchestra. In turn, having a hundred people on stage who are so engaged gives the audience more involvement in the film."

She recounts overhearing a young fan talking with his father after a performance of a Star Wars movie. The family had traveled several hours to hear the concert and the father asked why they couldn't have stayed home and saved money by watching the movie at home. If they had watched it home, the boy explained, "that would be a movie. This was an experience." Thanks For Reading

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Reel Music
Conductor Sarah Hicks on the growing interest in orchestras playing popular film scores. She conducts The Little Mermaid with the Dallas Symphony this weekend.
by Keith Mankin

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