Conducting electricity

Last Conductor Standing

Sarah Hatsuko Hicks will conduct the Reno Philharmonic Orchestra this month.

Sarah Hatsuko Hicks will conduct the Reno Philharmonic Orchestra this month.

Sarah Hatsuko Hicks conducts the Reno Philharmonic Orchestra as part of the Last Conductor Standing series: Sun., Jan. 11, 4 p.m. and Tues., Jan. 13, 7:30 p.m. Call 323-6392, or visit for tickets or more information.

If you want to make something old cool again, just make it a reality show competition. Funny how ballroom dancing, ventriloquists and variety shows are suddenly hip. Whether it’s the washed-up celebrities, the potential for humiliation or simply the thrill of competition, Americans eat it up.

So when the Reno Philharmonic Orchestra was faced with a complex challenge—to hire a new music director to replace the beloved Barry Jekowsky, while continuing to delight current audiences and bring in new ones—it was a natural choice to devise a reality show-inspired competition. Thus, the Last Conductor Standing program was born.

“We decided to find five terrific conductors and bring them to Reno to do concerts here,” explains Tim Young, the Reno Phil’s executive director. “When we went to marketing groups to talk about promoting the season, it became clear that American Idol was just begging to be parodied here, so that was how this started.”

The search committee tasked with finding the five conductors was comprised of community leaders, musicians and educators, who all worked to develop the criteria for candidates, which included musicality, interpersonal skills, marketability and education-related expertise. After all, standing on stage and waving a wand is just one small part of leading this orchestra that has not only won numerous local awards, but whose music education programs have also won national acclaim.

After a year in which the committee made 12 cross-country visits and sorted through more than 200 resumes, the following five were named: Jeffery Grogan, education conductor of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra; Rebecca Miller, Resident Conductor of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra; Christopher Confessore, resident conductor of the Alabama Symphony Orchestra and music director and principal conductor of the Brevard Symphony Orchestra in Melbourne, Fla; Sarah Hatsuko Hicks, associate conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra; and Laura Jackson, who has completed an appointment as assistant conductor and American conducting fellow of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

The idea is fairly simple: Audiences attend the shows, then go online to, and vote, a là American Idol, for their favorite conductor.

Young says the response has increased with each performance—the last one received more than 400 hits.

With the first three conductors—Grogan, Miller and Confessore—having already had their time in the spotlight, next on the schedule is Sarah Hatsuko Hicks, who will lead the RPO on Jan. 11 and 13. The concert will feature pieces from Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite: 1945, as well as Tchaikovsky’s “Bluebird” from Sleeping Beauty.

“Sarah is a dynamic and charming woman who has an exotic program revolving around dance. It’s very rhythmic and evocative of exotic places,” says Young. “She’s a very energetic performer.”

The fifth and final appearance of the series, on Feb. 8 and 10, will be by Laura Jackson, who has been called “a conductor to watch” by the Boston Globe. Pieces by Mendelssohn, Kodaly and Tchaikovsky will be featured. Of Jackson, Young says, “She’s a lot of fun to listen to. She’s exceptionally graceful, and her hands and arms are very expressive.”

What should audiences look for in the RPO’s next music director? Young says the first consideration is your own gut reaction to the music itself. “If it touches you in some way, positive or negative, we’d like to know,” he says. “And you can’t completely take out the physical, either. If you’re distracted by something they’re doing, or if you’re enjoying it, we want to know that, too.”

Voting closes at midnight on the Thursday following each concert. The winner will be announced in March, and would begin his or her first full season in September 2009.