Exclusive Interview & Giveaway: Sarah Hicks on Conducting the Magical Music of “Harry Potter” in Concert

The opening bars of “Hedwig’s Theme” are instantly recognizable to Harry Potter fans – and to the credit of the four composers employed throughout the film series, so are many of the other cues that accompany our favorite scenes. But film music isn’t all iconic melodies and sweeping strings. Sometimes the most powerful moments in a score are those that more subtly add a layer of emotion to the story, barely consciously noticed by a movie audience and difficult to recognize out of context.

The nuances of those musical moments aren’t lost on Sarah Hicks, conductor and film music specialist, who has led orchestras around the world in performances of the Harry Potter film scores. Hicks will be conducting a CineConcerts performance of the Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix score at the Hollywood Bowl on June 29. MuggleNet spoke with her in anticipation of the event to get her take on what makes this concert experience so special.

When there’s a visual element, especially for film, I think the concert experience is completely different because all of your senses are being engaged. […] I think audiences really feel like they’re part of something. And I love feeling the energy of everyone watching and listening together.

The feeling of community based around a fantastic storytelling experience has long been a hallmark of the Harry Potter fandom. Hicks emphasized that the upcoming performance presents the opportunity to think of Order of the Phoenix in a different way, even for die-hard fans who have seen the movie or listened to the soundtrack countless times:

I have this little philosophy that music is just as important as what you see in creating a sense of narrative and a sense of emotional impact, and the thought that music is a character and not just stuff in the background… It’s actually playing an active part. And to think of it as not just something pretty that’s accompanying the film, but it’s a part of the film, and to think of it as all one big thing, rather than ‘here’s music’ and ‘here’s film’…

Hicks, a self-professed Gryffindor, has a deep appreciation for the thematic elements of the Order of the Phoenix score.

I like that [composer Nicholas Hooper] has a lot of character-based music. For instance, in Order of the Phoenix, he has a theme for Dolores Umbridge that really captures her character. It’s pink on the outside but really dark on the inside. And he creates music that captures both that saccharine-ness but also that underlying… I hesitate to call it evil, but you know what I mean, that darkness. And so It’s very sophisticated music, but it also sounds beautiful, so it works on different levels.

But Hicks’ favorite moment – which she notes as a typical audience favorite at these performances as well – comes much later after the introduction of our least favorite Hogwarts professor.

I think it’s toward the end in the [Death Chamber] when Sirius Black emerges. And I think he says something like, ‘Get your hands off my godson,’ or something along that line. And then this battle music starts in the lower strings. It’s such really well-written music, and it’s such a dramatic pause. To me, that’s always really fun. It’s a perfect coordination of film and music, and it makes it so impactful and amazing. And the music rocks right there.

Hicks takes that perfect coordination of film and music she speaks about to another level in these live performances. Unlike a classical symphony performance, there is only one short intermission and barely any pauses for the orchestra during the film. Hicks describes the process as “very, very focused work, owing to the need to time the performance perfectly with the film and the pressure of having an entire ensemble relying on her not to get lost for even a moment.

But it’s work that has an enormously satisfying payoff. She wields the power to make people think differently about their engagement with popular culture, and she uses her expertise and passion to create an unforgettable experience for concertgoers.

I hope that people take away that the orchestra is an amazing instrument. It’s really, really cool to listen to so many people creating sound together onstage and how thrilling that is. And I hope they feel that their experience of the film is changed by hearing a live orchestra.

You can see Hicks work her magic at the Order of the Phoenix CineConcerts performance at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, California, on June 29 by purchasing tickets here – or you can swallow a vial of Felix Felicis and take a shot at winning our giveaway!

That’s right, you read that correctly. Thanks to our friends at CineConcerts, we have a pair of tickets for one lucky reader to experience the magic at the Hollywood Bowl! Our contest is open from today through June 25 at 11:59 p.m. Eastern to anyone who will be in the Los Angeles area or can Apparate to the concert on June 29.

 

 

The winner of this giveaway will be contacted by email and must respond within 24 hours, or else another winner will be chosen, so make sure to check your spam and junk folders just in case Errol is in charge of the post delivery! All travel and accommodations are the responsibility of the winner.

What are you waiting for? Enter now for your chance to win a pair of tickets to this magical Hollywood Bowl experience from CineConcerts!

 

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To learn more about the Harry Potter Film Concert Series, visit the website here.

Full Transcript with Sarah Hicks, Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Deanna Abrash: I just wanted to say thank you so much for taking the time to have an interview with us. We are so thrilled…

Sarah Hicks: Of course. My pleasure.

Deanna: I’m going to be going to the concert on [June] 29 for the Order of the Phoenix music and I am so excited.

Sarah: Excellent. Fabulous.

Deanna: I have been looking forward to it for a while, so I’m super excited to talk to you about it today.

Sarah: [laughs] Cool.

Deanna: Wow. So Molly had told me a little bit about you, and I am so blown away by the sheer number of musical ensembles that you have gotten to perform with. That is just amazing to me.

Sarah: Yes. There’s a lot of them.

Deanna: Obviously, you’ve been in Los Angeles before. I remember seeing your name before. Can I ask you a little bit about what brings you back, particularly for this concert series?

Sarah: Sure. I, in the last six or seven years, have become a film specialist; that means these projects for film with live orchestras. They’ve become super popular. It’s one of the things I do really well, and I enjoy working with orchestras. And I’m one of maybe a dozen conductors who’ve been doing Harry Potter all over the world. It happened to fit in my schedule and they needed someone to do it, so I’m going.

Deanna: That’s fantastic. So you’ve done some of the Harry Potter music before, then. Have you done specifically Order of the Phoenix music before?

Sarah: I have. I’ve done all the Harry Potter films through, I think, number six. So yeah, I’ve seen those a lot of times because I’m conducting them. And I enjoy doing all of them.

Deanna: Wow, that’s great. I believe this is the first in the entire series [where] Nicholas Hooper was the composer. Is that correct?

Sarah: That is correct, yeah.

Deanna: Have you found in doing Hooper’s scores for Order of the Phoenix…? And Half-Blood Prince, I believe, is his next one. What are the unique features of his music as compared to the other scores that you’ve found that you enjoy?

Sarah: I like that he has a lot of character-based music. For instance, in Order of the Phoenix, he has a theme for Dolores Umbridge that really captures her character. It’s pink on the outside but really dark on the inside. And he creates music that captures both that saccharine-ness but also that underlying… I hesitate to call it evil, but you know what I mean, that darkness. And so it’s very sophisticated music, but it also sounds beautiful, so it works on different levels. And I think he really captures that really well.

Deanna: For sure. You’ve spoken about Umbridge’s theme. I know there are several other themes in that score that I find particularly amazing. I mean, I love his score for “Dumbledore’s Army” [and] “Fireworks,” of course, being the memorable one with the Weasley twins.

Sarah: Oh, yeah. That’s a fun scene.

Deanna: Do you have a particular moment that you enjoy the most, or that you in your experience of working with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra have found everybody really gets into?

Sarah: One of my favorites is… I think it’s toward the end in the [Death Chamber] when Sirius Black emerges. And I think he says something like, “Get your hands off my godson,” or something along that line. And then this battle music starts in the lower strings. It’s such really well-written music, and it’s such a dramatic pause. To me, that’s always really fun. It’s a perfect coordination of film and music, and it makes it so impactful and amazing. And the music rocks right there. So I will [unintelligible].

Deanna: Oh, that is a really great moment. Oh my God. I’m assuming that’s going to be something that we’re going to be hearing and experiencing in this concert.

Sarah: Absolutely.

Deanna: Great. I can’t wait. Speaking of the concert, I did want to get your take on it. You have done these film and visual experiences for Harry Potter and I believe for so many other film score music [shows] all over the world. Do you feel a difference in the way that audiences are reacting to or engaging with these performances just based on how the audience experience is? Can you feel that from when you are onstage?

Sarah: Sure. I mean, when there’s a visual element, especially for film, I think the concert experience is completely different because all of your senses are being engaged. Well, except maybe smell, but who knows? So it’s a more immersive experience to see a film and then to really feel the power of the music in the film, which is also a character in itself in movies. It drives the narrative. It creates [an] emotional punch. So it’s incredibly important. So just to bring all those elements together… I think audiences really feel like they’re part of something. And I love feeling the energy of everyone watching and listening together.

Deanna: That’s got to create its own unique challenges in the production and the performance of this music. Are there any in particular that you’ve found to be particularly challenging but also end up being particularly rewarding?

Sarah: Ooh, that’s a huge question. I’m going to address the production side because these are highly-produced concerts. And I have my own screen and my own film that I’m looking at to coordinate music with the film, and I have written music – a score – that is coordinated to my particular version of the film, which is not what you guys are seeing on the big screen. So I’m always paying attention to the screen in front of me to coordinate that with the music and to make sure the musicians are lining up. So I would say it’s always challenging because I have a billion things to do. It’s very, very focused work.

Deanna: Yeah, that would be very different. If there’s one thing that you’re hoping that the audience takes away from an experience like this – obviously, there’s got to be several things – what would you say that one thing would be for you?

Sarah: Well, I’ll give you my little speech about the fact that for a lot of young people, their first exposure to orchestral music is through film scores. And sometimes you don’t even think about the fact that it’s there, and you don’t think it’s a part of your everyday cultural experience. And when people come to these shows where it’s film and live orchestra, they realize how much symphonic music they actually listen to and how powerful and engaging and incredibly exciting it is. So I hope that people take away that the orchestra is an amazing instrument. It’s really, really cool to listen to so many people creating sound together onstage and how thrilling that is. And I hope they feel that their experience of the film is changed by hearing a live orchestra.

Deanna: Wow. Well, I can’t wait to see that, for sure. I do want to ask, though, if you’re doing these visual and music combination experiences, have you ever conducted these scores – and particularly, the Order of the Phoenix score – just as a musical concert by itself without the added visual elements or the other elements in these productions?

Sarah: As a movie score? No. For some of the other films, there are suites that are excerpted, so [they are] the best picks of music that are maybe 20 minutes long altogether. And those I’ve definitely performed. But that’s a completely different experience, and it’s not all of the music, which would be, like, two hours.

Deanna: Right. For the moments in the film where there’s actually not an underlying cue for it, which I guess would not be brought to the forefront in something like this, how do you handle that sort of thing?

Sarah: Hmm. Ask the question again? I’m not quite sure.

Deanna: Sorry. So generally, in films, it’s not the start of the film and you just go with the music throughout the whole time. There are pauses. There are individual cues. Is that something that you’ve found in these concerts that you’ve had to work around? In creating this experience, do you create some sort of jump so it takes the audience smoothly from cue to cue, especially if there’s a big jump in time where there’s not music playing?

Sarah: Yeah, I guess. I’m trying to understand where the question is coming from. It’s the whole movie, and there are parts of the movie where there isn’t music, but not a lot. I think our longest break is a minute and a half long. And so we literally sit there and wait for the movie to keep going, and then we start playing at the next point where there is music. And again, I accomplish that because my screen has a digital countdown and a measure count and a beat count. It has splashes and punches. It tells me when to start, when to stop, when something happens… Every single second or even half-second of the music is coordinated to film. So I’m working with that information. So yeah, does that make sense? Does that answer your question?

Deanna: It does, yeah. So you’re essentially watching a visual click track of the entire film.

Sarah: Exactly. It is a total visual click track with even more information than a click track. And it counts down cues. It tells me how many more seconds I have to rest until the next cue comes. It’s a lot of information.

Deanna: So you essentially just don’t get any sort of break at all through this entire thing.

Sarah: No, not really.

Deanna: There’s always something for you to read.

Sarah: As I said, I think the longest break is maybe two minutes and a half. So yeah, the orchestra is playing most of the time, and I’m working most of the time for two and a half hours.

Deanna: That is incredible. The amount of stamina that has to take…

Sarah: It’s a lot of focus, too, because you can’t lose your concentration. The minute you lose your concentration, you could get lost. And if I get lost, a hundred other people get lost.

Deanna: For sure. Have you found that any of the Harry Potter scores [is] more challenging than the other?

Sarah: Hmm. Probably the second film. That’s Chamber of Secrets, right?

Deanna: Yeah.

Sarah: Yeah, Chamber of Secrets because that music… The score was put together by John Williams using cues from the first film and then adding some new music. But essentially, a lot of it was recycled, so it’s actually very awkward because it was a little bit cut and pasted. So that’s actually challenging because it does feel awkward, even though it doesn’t sound awkward to the audience. It sounds pretty seamless. But for us, we’re jumping around a lot.

Deanna: Very cool. And I’d imagine the majority of this music is symphonic, and you’re not really getting a lot of hybrid scoring techniques used in the Harry Potter films. Am I mistaken in that? Are there moments where, say, in the score as it is in the film, there were electronic music elements added? And how do you account for something like that onstage?

Sarah: There are musical cues on film. Sometimes there are added elements. I can’t remember if Order of the Phoenix has this. I can’t keep track. I do a lot of films; what can I say?

Deanna: Understandable.

Sarah: But yeah, throughout the films there are instances where there are things on the track on film that are not live, but they’re not huge things. They might be sonic whooshes or whatnot. But a lot of that is taken care of on synthesizer, which has a billion patches – if you know anything about synths – to create different kinds of sounds. And that is in the score as well. So almost everything non-dialogue that you hear during the film is created onstage live.

Deanna: Wow. I can’t wait. I mean, I feel like, at this point, I’m going to be spending more time watching you guys than I am going to be watching the screen because I’ve seen the film how many times, but watching you guys work and doing that… That’s got to be amazing to coordinate that many people doing that.

Sarah: Yeah, it’s pretty wild.

Deanna: And just for fun, since I know I’ve taken up so much of your time already: Outside of conducting the music for these films, are you a fan of Harry Potter? Have you read the books?

Sarah: I am. I’ve read all the books. I read some of them in French because I was practicing my French. I’ve seen all the films, and I’ve certainly conducted for films a lot, so I end up watching them a lot. But yeah. I’m team Gryffindor all the way. I even have a Gryffindor scarf, and I have a stuffed Hedwig that I sometimes bring onstage.

Deanna: That’s adorable. I love Hedwig. Okay, so do you have a favorite character from the films – or the books, since they are not the same?

Sarah: Oh, that’s a good question. I don’t know. I guess I’m partial to Hermione and Luna, I guess because they’re intelligent, strong female characters. It changes.

Deanna: They are. And one more just for fun: You’ve said you like Hermione and Luna. If you had to pick a musical instrument in your lovely symphonic ensembles, what kind of musical instrument do you think best represents those characters?

Sarah: Oh, gosh. That’s a really good question. I haven’t thought of that. Wow. I think of Hermione as an oboe. Sonically, yes, but mostly because it’s such a complicated instrument to play and difficult to create a good sound out of. And I just feel like it represents her as a super complicated, sometimes prickly, but really intelligent character. I don’t know about Luna. I’ll have to think about that. That’s a really good question.

Deanna: Yeah. She’s really different, but lovable, so… I don’t know. I actually don’t have an answer for that either.

Sarah: [unintelligible]… but now you’ll have me thinking about that all night, so good question.

Deanna: Sure. And one more, if you don’t mind?

Sarah: Mhm.

Deanna: [As] I said, I’m so looking forward to this, not just because I’m a huge Harry Potter fan but [also] because I’m a huge fan of film scores myself. And the Harry Potter scores are definitely on my playlist of things I love. If there was something about this concert that you feel like people wouldn’t know to be excited about, what would that thing be, and what would you tell them about it?

Sarah: Hmm. That’s another good question. That they don’t know about… huh.

Deanna: What’s something that we should watch for that maybe we weren’t going into this thinking about?

Sarah: That’s a really, really good question. I have this little philosophy that music is just as important as what you see in creating a sense of narrative and a sense of emotional impact, and the thought that music is a character and not just stuff in the background… It’s actually playing an active part. And to think of it as not just something pretty that’s accompanying the film, but it’s a part of the film, and to think of it as all one big thing, rather than “here’s music” and “here’s film”… But it’s an artistic part of the whole experience. I don’t know if that’s… [laughs]

Deanna: No, that’s amazing.

Sarah: Maybe [it’s] too complex to think about. But yeah, that’s what I really encourage people to think about.

Deanna: Great. Well, again, I’m really looking forward to being able to think about it that way when I see you guys in concert in a couple [of] weeks here. Thank you so much for your time, Sarah. I really appreciate it.

Sarah: Oh, you’re welcome. Thanks for all the good questions. And enjoy the concert.

Deanna: Thank you. I will see you soon.

Sarah: All right, great. Thanks. Bye.

Deanna: Have a good night.

Deanna Abrash

I'm a proud Slytherin and lover of Pumpkin Pasties. When I'm not daydreaming about being a world-traveling Magizoologist like Newt, you can find me reading, writing, learning languages, dabbling in design, and doing all things music- and film-related.