Darren Hicks - Bassoonist

He/Him - Darren Hicks joined the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at the beginning of the 2018/19 season as Associate Principal Bassoon. Prior to his appointment to the Toronto Symphony, Mr. Hicks was a Fellow at the New World Symphony in Miami Beach, Florida, for three seasons. At the New World Symphony, Mr. Hicks was able to marry his zeal for performance and sharing his passion for classical music through lecture recitals and one-on-one audience member conversations. He was a member of the Verbier Festival Orchestra (Verbier, Switzerland) from 2013 to 2015, where he worked with world-renowned conductors such as Valery Gergiev, Gianandrea Noseda, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Daniel Harding. He has also been privileged to perform with the National Arts Centre Orchestra (Ottawa), working with conductors Trevor Pinnock, Pinchas Zukerman, and Alexander Shelley.

In 2016, Mr. Hicks was named to the CBC’s “Hot 30 under 30” list of classical musicians. In 2014/15 Mr. Hicks was a participant in the Rebanks Family Fellowship and International Performance Residency Program at The Glenn Gould School (Toronto), a fellowship program made possible by the Rebanks Family and The W. Garfield Weston Foundation. Other recent accolades include the Dean’s Prize at Yale University’s 2014 Commencement, the Thomas Daniel Nyfenger Prize (awarded to the student displaying the highest level of excellence in woodwind playing) from the Yale School of Music, and the 2012 National Arts Centre Orchestra Bursary Prize.

Having begun his bassoon studies at the age of 12 in his hometown of Middleton, Nova Scotia, Mr. Hicks pursued his passion for music at Yale University and the University of Ottawa, where he studied with principal teachers Frank Morelli and Christopher Millard (bassoon), Joan Panetti (musicianship), and David Shifrin (chamber music).

Darren plays on a bassoon made in Canada by Bell Bassoons Ltd.

Darren and I have known each other for nearly a decade. We met years ago in Ottawa and occasionally had the opportunity to work together. We had stayed in touch peripherally through friends, but I was thrilled to have the chance to reconnect with Darren for this interview and hear his wonderful thoughts on orchestra life, the US, and the work we all have left to do to make our art scene truly inclusive and diverse. If you’re near Toronto, go hear Darren and the Toronto Symphony play. They are one of the finest orchestras and you will hear some amazing bassooning while you’re there!

{Jacob} - Welcome back to Canada! Let me just say how lucky the TSO is to have you back in the country and playing with them. Before landing back in Toronto, where had you been living?

{Darren} - Thank-you! I’m very happy to be back. It’s been just about a year now. Before moving to Toronto, I was in Miami playing with the New World Symphony. It isn’t well known in Canada, but it is an orchestra that brings together players that are postgraduates and functions as a training program. Most people have a masters degree and are between 22 and 32. Every week we play a different program and do a new concert. It was created as the missing link between a university program and the real world of orchestral performance. It tries to bring you as close to a real life orchestra experience as possible. There are a couple programs like this in Europe already. The Berlin Academy works similarly, but the NWS is its own independent organisation. The amazing thing is that it also provides you with training outside of the playing experience in areas that are very useful. Media, leadership, and communications training for example. Very important things that don’t often come with training as an orchestral musician.

{Jacob} - Actual, usable, real-world skills! Not terribly common in an arts training program. Bravo NWS! How long was that program?

{Darren} - Three years. I was there from 2015-2018.

{Jacob} - Ah, so you lived through the last election. And not only lived through it, but lived through it in Florida.

{Darren} - Well, I also did my masters in the States and lived through the election before that one too. I’ve survived two very different elections!

{Jacob} - The 2012 election you were at Yale. Living in a democratic state during the last Obama win must have felt better.

{Darren} - Well, Connecticut is weird. The southern part is full of democrats and the northern rural part is entirely republican. I suppose that is pretty normal in the US. Yale is also the most liberal of all the ivy league schools, so I was lucky! But I won’t lie, coming back across the border to live here permanently felt pretty good, yes.  

{Jacob} - You’ve played with many different orchestras across the world. Every one of those orchestras would likely say that diversity is an important facet of their mandate. Almost every group is saying that their goal is to include and champion more than straight, white, men in their organisations. Having played with so many groups, how effective has that mandate been? Have you noticed a shift?

{Darren} - It’s slow, of course. I think some are trying harder than others and I do get the feeling that everyone is waiting for one orchestra to really dive in and walk the walk. They’re all waiting for another group to fully commit and see what that looks like before they do the same. I think the NWS is one that has legitimately put diversity at the forefront of their mandate. They are in south Florida which is famously a part of the country that is predominantly latinx and yet the orchestra is predominantly white. What NWS - and really every orchestra - grapples with is the conversation of it being a meritocracy. Of course, all things being equal, the diverse candidates should be hired to correct an institutional bias, but these young players have lived their entire lives largely shut out of the programs and training needed to bring them up to the level of the affluent, white, players. Those players that have always been afforded access. The argument from institutions is always that hiring to correct a bias is great, but we don’t know where to find them they don’t have the training, they don’t come out to auditions, or the institution doesn’t know how to support them.

{Jacob} - Perhaps, like all things, the final route to success will not be what we envisioned at the beginning. I’ve seen many orchestras lately programming othered guest artists, curators, and composers. Or, pre-show lectures by people from marginalized groups to put the concert in context. I think these orchestras who are either afraid of changing the institutionalized diversity problem or are clumsy in their attempts at it, see this as a quicker and easier way to include queer people, POC, and other groups outside the tradition. Although, I firmly believe in the power of seeing yourself represented on stage and that seeing that is a compelling force for young people to get involved themselves, it often feels tokenistic. Have you seen it successfully done?

{Darren} - Yes. That is a hard battle. Orchestras will often get funding to commission a piece or hire a performer from a diverse background. The fear is that they will hire an indigenous drummer, take their money, and call it a day. I do think that although not perfect, any representation is still representation. Symbiosis is always better. Asking someone to be present because they genuinely believe in the talent of that performer is always better.

{Jacob} - I have to admit, and of course I’m biased, that the orchestras I see trying their hardest and succeeding are those with queer and POC leadership. The Gordon Gerrard, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Edwin Outwater, Jessica Bejarano, and Marin Alsop’s of the world seem to be programming things and working with people that are affecting more change.

{Darren} - Of course my mind immediately goes to Michael Tilson-Thomas. He’s the Artistic Director of the NWS, but has been the conductor of the San Francisco Orchestra for many years. He has always programmed music that was well ahead of its time, and commissioned works by many composers who had a very hard time breaking into the classical world otherwise. He has been a champion of new American music for decades, but also thinks about classical music in such a different way. A very Queer way. We did a program once that paired Mahler 9 with Ligeti Lantano. Which is a bazaar pairing, until you hear it. Then it makes perfect sense. He loves to take a piece that is far less common and pair it with a better known one, but in an unexpected way. But, I do believe that is in him because of who he is. He’s a queer icon who comes from a family of music theatre royalty. He thinks about things through that lens and it manifests into these amazingly innovative and complex performances.

{Jacob} - Yes, MTT is probably one of the best examples of the queering of classical spaces. I think it can be done very genuinely and earnestly when the person at the helm is truly viewing the landscape through different eyes. My fear is when orchestras start pride seasons, or pride shows out of nowhere. It smacks of commercialism. That they, like all corporations, have realized there is an untapped audience that can bring them new customers. It feels so false.

{Darren} - The tokenization and commercialization of the queer experience is definitely something to be worried about. Bringing that into the concert hall without a genuine understanding of what it means is dangerous. Does that same queer audience who comes to the drag queen concert with the symphony also feel welcome coming to regular concert series shows? What is the turnover on that? Has that space actually been made welcoming and inclusive? We used to do club nights in Miami. They would start at 10 pm and people were welcome to come stand behind the orchestra, have a drink, and move around. They turned the hall into a club. The number of those people who then went to a regular show was almost none. So, similarly to pride shows, we’re actually just failing those communities that we’re trying to include. I would rather see these queer composers, artists, conductors, and performers in the regular cycle. Bring that audience into the hall not on a special night, but because they are being represented in the regular programming.

{Jacob} - And to those organisations that do just that, we should be giving full credit. Here in Nova Scotia, the St. Cecilia Concert series and Symphony Nova Scotia have brought in Sara Buechner - a trans pianist, and several other queer performers without billing it as a pride show or a special event. From my understanding, Sara had been shut out from performing with orchestras for many years as she (and after) transitioned.

{Darren} - That is great. I think you’ll agree that even within the last hundred years, comparatively speaking, classical music has been kind to cis-gendered white men. It has not been nearly as kind to basically everyone else in the community.

{Jacob} - We’ve known each other for years, but we’ve never talked about queer identity. Is this interview the most you’ve ever thought about your identity and how it relates to work and art?

{Darren} - I think it is. Which is not a bad thing. I was thinking a lot about doing this interview with you over the last week. I was thinking about what I was going to say and if my queerness or my identity has any bearing on my job as a musician. I started thinking about myself in a variety of situations - out with friends, at work, on a date, at home with family. And I came to the conclusion that work is where my queerness appears least. But, I don’t think that is an entirely bad thing. In an orchestra, everyone’s job is to be a small part of a much greater whole. If I was anything more than the part I’m playing, I’m doing a disservice to the music. Which initially made me very sad. Of course I would love a job that didn’t require me to be more or less devoid of personality, but orchestras require that of every player, not just the queer ones. It’s the only way it can work.

{Jacob} - As much as I am rah-rah queer and I think arts institutions should be trying to include as much queer and othered performance as possible, I don’t disagree with any of that. I think you’re right. On paper, an orchestra exists to perform things that are larger than the individuals. But, I hear from people all the time that although this is all true of their day job, they go home and play in a quartet of all queer musicians, or the theatre and art they consume is entirely queer. That they find other artistic ways to bring out their identity into art.

{Darren} - Which is maybe the continuation of the historical queer experience. Have your day job that pays the bills, gives you healthcare, and then carve out your queer life on the side. Go hang out with your gay friends and live a second life. I would love to see those worlds meld a little more. Organisations have a duty to carve out space within the world they operate for these people that have traditionally been turned away or have had to hide themselves to survive and thrive. Show me the regular programming with string quartets made entirely of people of colour, drag queens that sing, performance artists who are queer and subversive. It can be done. It just takes commitment and effort.