With a grand entry, an upbeat melody bursts forth from the stage, and catches the wind like a dandelion seedling dispersing from the head of a flower with the gentle puff of a child’s breath. The melody swirls over the meadow, a flute picking up the tune with a birdlike song, paired with a warm brass flourish.
Breathlessly, it quiets to a soft, tumbling tune reminiscent of a bumblebee flitting through the garden, before the rain showers burst forth.
“Voices of Spring” by Johann Strauss II lead the Vermont Symphony Orchestra’s audience into a dance with nature, directed by guest conductor Sarah Hicks.
Hicks was a serious pianist as a child. She began studying the ivory keys at the age of five, practicing for three hours a day.
In her teens, Hicks hoped to pursue piano as a career, but with hands injured by overuse at the age of 17, Hicks’ future “was taken away,” she said. “It was my dad who said, ‘You may not be able to play the piano, but you can still hold a stick.’”
Over a decade later, Hicks is now the Principal Conductor of Pops and Presentations for the Minnesota Orchestra, and rarely spends a night at home.
“I tell people that I basically live on an airplane,” Hicks said.
While Hicks lives in San Francisco with her papillon, which travels everywhere with her, she has conducted orchestras in Europe, Asia, Australia, across the United States and Stowe, working with her agent in New York to schedule concert appearances and keep everything straight.
It’s been at least five years since she’s been on stage in Stowe, but on Sunday, July 8 she’ll return with the Vermont Symphony Orchestra in its final stop in the “Gifts of Nature” TD Bank Summer Festival Tour.
Hicks arrives in Vermont on a redeye flight the day before their first concert in South Pomfret, where she’ll have four to six hours to rehearse with an orchestra she’s never met.
“Seventy-five percent of my work is done before I get in front of the players,” Hicks said. “Learning music takes ages (for a conductor). New music that’s maybe 30 minutes long can take 20 hours to learn. You have to have vision.”
The good news for Hicks is that in the eight-day tour, the program is the same at each location, and Vermont, she says, is absolutely beautiful.
“I’m coming at the perfect time of year — I’ve always come in the winter — and I’m committed to sharing music,” Hicks said.
Live music, especially with a classical symphony orchestra, is one of the most magical experiences, she said.
Listening to live music is also one of the few community events left in the digital world, Hicks added.
Stowe works to make their symphony orchestra even more magical every year, sending the players and audience off with a bang.
Classical music has historically been punctuated with blasts of cannon fire, such as Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” which included a battery of genuine cannons firing at key percussive moments.
Vermont Symphony Orchestra’s show at Music in the Meadow at Trapp Family Lodge has always ended with a bang — fireworks close the symphony’s performances.
“Nobody has fireworks with the backdrop we do,” said Stowe Performing Arts executive director Lynn Paparella.
Stowe Performing Arts, the organization that puts on Music in the Meadow, has had an almost 35-year relationship with Vermont Symphony Orchestra.
Music in the Meadow is usually the symphony’s last stop on its annual early summer tour, and its performance in Stowe marks the start of the Music in the Meadow series.
Paparella’s passion for live music is evident in the way she smiles when she talks about the series.
“Just to hear how that orchestra is growing, sounding so beautiful,” is rewarding, Paparella said.
Vermont Symphony Orchestra has come every year since the early 1980s.
Nancy Collins of Stowe has seen many of those shows. An avid classical music fan, she goes to most Music in the Meadow performances every year, and says the experience of hearing the orchestra perform live is unparalleled.
“I think you’re kind of wrapped in the music more than if you’re listening to it on the radio. You feel part of the experience, part of what you’re hearing,” Collins said.
“There is something very special about live music,” Paparella said. “Sometimes, a piece of music can just bring you to tears, or bring you to laugh.”
And, with live music, “every performance is different,” she said.
“You’ll never hear that piece that way again.”
Terri Gregory also attends Music in the Meadow shows regularly, and says she loves the community feel of outdoor live music in the summer.
“It’s a mixture of the different ages of people. You see kids out on the side kind of moving to the music. Most of the people kind of are sitting around in the middle. It’s a beautiful place for everyone to meet and enjoy music,” Gregory said.
“The fireworks afterwards has that extra punch. It’s a wonderful experience.”
This year’s lineup in the Vermont Symphony Orchestra is awash with fresh talent.
Ruben Rengel is the 22-year-old violin star of Vermont Symphony Orchestra’s summer tour this year.
Violinist Ruben Rengel, 22, of Venezuela is fresh off his victory in the 2018 Annual Sphinx Competition, a competition put on by Sphinx Music, a non-profit that bolsters the potential of young black and Latino classical musicians.
This year, Rengel took first place laureate in the competition.
Rengel began playing violin at the age of three at the National System of Youth Orchestras of Venezuela.
In addition to classical music, he also performs Venezuelan folk and jazz music.
Rengel has been coached by the likes of Itzhak Perlman, and has played at Carnegie Hall with the New York String Orchestra Seminar.