Theodore Thomas in 1880

Wishing a very happy birthday to our founder and first music director, Theodore Thomas, on the occasion of his 186th birthday!

“The first of the great conductors active in America was the German-born Theodore Thomas, whose family came to New York from Hannover when he was ten years old. Thomas can thus legitimately be called an American product. . . . From the beginning, Thomas dedicated himself to the idea that good music was a necessity for the people, not a luxury. He also made up his mind that he was going to be the man to bring music to them.”

“[Thomas] had a genuine nobility and a musical adventurousness far beyond that of any conductor active in America at the time. Nobody could swerve him from his mission. . . . When [Adelina] Patti sang under his baton, she wanted things her way; she was the prima donna, she said. Thomas corrected her. ‘Excuse me, madam. Here I am the prima donna.'”

“The importance of Theodore Thomas in the American scheme of things cannot be overestimated. More than any single person he raised the standards of orchestral playing and repertoire. . . . The man was protean and possessed of a high order of discrimination. He had daring, imagination, and, above all, determination; a will that could not be bent, much less broken. It was he who, through his tours with the Theodore Thomas Orchestra, brought the sound of symphonic music for the first time to a large part of the United States. Pioneer, educator, organizer, scrapper, Theodore Thomas was in addition a brilliant and far-seeing conductor . . . and once he started, he never let down. . . . Thomas did keep on, and lived to see the emergence of a great musical culture in his country. A substantial part of it was all his work.”

—excerpts from The Great Conductors by Harold C. Schonberg, 1967.

Theodore Thomas in the early 1870s (J. Gurney & Son photo)

More than twenty years before founding the Chicago Orchestra in 1891, Theodore Thomas and his eponymous ensemble—the Theodore Thomas Orchestra—were enjoying a wave of success. Thomas founded the orchestra in 1864 and after performing to great acclaim primarily in New York, he soon decided that traveling the country was next step in their continued success. The first tour began in the fall of 1869 and included a November residency in Chicago for three concerts in Farwell Hall.

“The first concert by Theodore Thomas’s unrivalled orchestra on Saturday evening was, without exception, the finest musical event Chicago has ever known,” reported the Chicago Tribune on November 29. “The light and shade of this orchestra are something marvelous [and] it plays with delicious expression . . . magical.”

Thomas and his orchestra returned to Chicago twice over the next year and a half, in November 1870 and April 1871. The anticipation for their returns grew and reception continued to be enthusiastic. “I think we cannot, any of us, be too grateful for such music as this,” wrote Peregrine Pickle (perhaps a nom de plume) in a letter to the editor of the Tribune on April 22, 1871. “It makes better men and women of us all [and] lifts us to a higher plane of enjoyment.”

Chicago Tribune, October 1, 1871

The Theodore Thomas Orchestra’s fantastic receptions during those first three residencies encouraged Uranus H. Crosby to invite Thomas to be the centerpiece for the grand re-opening of his opera house in October 1871.

Originally inaugurated on April 20, 1865 (delayed by three days due to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln), Crosby’s Opera House was located on the north side of Washington Street between State and Dearborn. The Italianate five-story palace featured allegorical statues overlooking patrons as they passed through a grand entry arch, and residents included music publishers, William Wallace Kimball‘s piano store, business offices, and art studios and galleries. The 3,000-seat auditorium featured a dome encircled by likenesses of composers surrounded by frescoes painted by the firm of Jevne & Almini, and above the orchestra was a forty-foot painting based on Guido Reni’s Aurora. The reported cost to build was well over $600,000.

Soon after the house’s initial success, Crosby ran into severe financial difficulties, and the theater sat mostly dark until undergoing a major renovation during the summer of 1871. On September 14, the Chicago Tribune announced: “The opening of Crosby’s Opera House, after the splendid refitment which it has been undergoing for several weeks, will be fitly celebrated by a season of Theodore Thomas’s symphony and popular concerts, ten of which will be given, beginning Monday evening, October 9, and ending on Wednesday evening, the 18th.”

On October 8, the “brilliantly decorated and renovated” theater was “lit up for the first time . . . for the pleasure of friends of the managers,” according to George P. Upton. A few short hours later, tragedy struck and the city was in flames, as the Great Chicago Fire rapidly spread from the southwest side to the center of downtown. Early in the morning on October 9, Thomas and the members of his orchestra “reached the Twenty-second Street station of the Lake Shore Railroad while the fire was at its height and left the burning city at once . . .”

According to Memoirs of Theodore Thomas, completed in 1911 by his widow Rose Fay: “Thomas was paralyzed by the announcement that Chicago was burning, and [Crosby’s] Opera House already in ashes! In short, they had arrived just in time to witness the terrible conflagration which so nearly wiped Chicago off the map altogether, and, of course, the concerts which Thomas had expected to give there for two years to come, were canceled. . . . he and the orchestra stayed [in Joliet] until it was time for the next engagement in Saint Louis.”

Advertisement in the October 1871 program book for concerts in Saint Louis

Over 2,000 acres of land were destroyed, including nearly 18,000 buildings and well over $200 million in property. More than 100,000 Chicagoans—roughly one-third of the city’s population—were rendered homeless, and it is estimated that more than 300 lost their lives.

“We got away from the burning city as best we could, and spent the time intervening before our next engagement . . . in rehearsals,” wrote Thomas in his autobiography. “We began by studying the finale of [Wagner’s] Tristan and Isolde, and I played it in connection with the Vorspiel (which I had brought out in 1865), for the first time in America [in] Boston, the following December.”

In Saint Louis, Thomas was invited to add concerts at Benedict DeBar’s Opera House, including a “grand extra concert” on Monday, October 23, “for the benefit of the Chicago sufferers, for which occasion all the members of Mr. Thomas’ troupe have volunteered their services.”

Despite initial financial setbacks due to the lost concerts in Chicago, the Theodore Thomas Orchestra would continue to mostly thrive until it was disbanded in 1888. Of course, this led the way for Thomas to establish the Chicago Orchestra in 1891 and serve as music director for the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, proving to the world that Chicago had indeed risen from the ashes.

This article also appears here and portions previously appeared here.

Margaret Hillis, ca. 1950 (James Abresch)

“You sing first with your ears, then your heart, mind, and voice.”

“Enjoy the phrase. Don’t just be obedient.”

“The bar line is like children. It should be seen and not heard.”

“Voices are not made for music. Music is made for voices. Serve the music!”

“If you want to give the baby a name, it’s called a fugue.” (Regarding the Sanctus in Verdi’s Requiem)

On February 2, 1979, Margaret Hillis was interviewed for the John Callaway Interviews program on WTTW:

“Tenors, you wander around in the wilderness, and we don’t have 40 days.”

“Don’t sing in chest voice. Angels don’t have chests.” (Addressing the alto section during a rehearsal for Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust)

“Sopranos, you sound like you’re wearing neckties and they’re too tight.”

“Basses, don’t swim. This is not a pool.”

“Tenors, you’re lying very close to the ladies’ parts, if you’ll pardon the expression.”

Following Hillis’s death in February 1998, WTTW’s Artbeat Chicago dedicated an entire episode to her memory:

“Don’t just sing notes. Notes are not music.”

“‘Piano’ doesn’t mean passive.”

“You’ll see eighth notes in that measure. When you have a chance, look up.”

“Sorry to say, but, sopranos, those triplets are really constipated.”

“The music is not on the page. Only the notes.”

Recorded in December 1978 for WTTW, The Do-It-Yourself Messiah program was first telecast in March 1979:

A very special thanks to our friends at WTTW Chicago—Allison Schein Holmes, director of media archives and Michael McKee, media archives librarian—for the use of these videos from their collections.

This article also appears here.

Sir Georg Solti and Margaret Hillis show off their 1986 Grammy Awards for Liszt’s A Faust Symphony and Orff’s Carmina burana. (Jim Steere)

During her 37 years as director of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, Margaret Hillis prepared her ensemble for many recordings—including nine Grammy Award winners—with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on the Erato, Deutsche Grammophon, London, and RCA labels. A sample of some of those iconic records is below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 
BACH Mass in B Minor, BWV 232
Sir Georg Solti conductor
Felicity Lott soprano
Anne Sofie von Otter mezzo-soprano
Hans Peter Blochwitz tenor
William Shimell baritone
Gwynne Howell bass
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis director
Recorded in Orchestra Hall in 1990
 
BACH Saint Matthew Passion, BWV 244
Sir Georg Solti conductor
Kiri Te Kanawa soprano
Anne Sofie von Otter mezzo-soprano
Anthony Rolfe Johnson tenor
Tom Krause bass
Hans Peter Blochwitz tenor
Olaf Bär baritone
Richard Cohn baritone
Patrice Michaels soprano
Debra Austin mezzo-soprano
William Watson tenor
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis director
Glen Ellyn Children’s Chorus
Doreen Rao director
Recorded in Orchestra Hall in 1987
London

BARBER 
The Lovers
Dale Duesing baritone
BARBER Prayers of Kierkegaard
Sarah Reese soprano
Andrew Schenk conductor
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis director

BEETHOVEN Missa solemnis in D Major, Op. 123
Sir Georg Solti conductor
Lucia Popp soprano
Yvonne Minton mezzo-soprano
Mallory Walker tenor
Gwynne Howell bass
Victor Aitay violin
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis director
Recorded in Medinah Temple in 1977
London

BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125
Fritz Reiner conductor
Phyllis Curtin soprano
Florence Kopleff contralto
John McCollum tenor
Donald Gramm bass-baritone
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis director
Recorded in Orchestra Hall in 1961
RCA

BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125
Sir Georg Solti conductor
Jessye Norman soprano
Reinhild Runkel mezzo-soprano
Robert Schunk tenor
Hans Sotin bass
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis director
Recorded in Medinah Temple in 1986
London

BERLIOZ The Damnation of Faust, Op. 24
Sir Georg Solti conductor
Frederica von Stade mezzo-soprano
Kenneth Riegel tenor
José van Dam baritone
Malcolm King bass
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis director
Glen Ellyn Children’s Chorus
Doreen Rao director
Recorded in Medinah Temple in 1981
London

BRAHMS 
A German Requiem, Op. 45
Daniel Barenboim conductor
Janet Williams soprano
Thomas Hampson baritone
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis director
Recorded in Orchestra Hall in 1992
Erato

BRUCKNER Helgoland
Daniel Barenboim conductor
Men of the Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis director
Recorded in Orchestra Hall in 1979
Deutsche Grammophon

BRUCKNER Psalm 150

Daniel Barenboim conductor
Ruth Welting soprano
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis director
Recorded in Orchestra Hall in 1979
Deutsche Grammophon

BRUCKNER Te Deum
Daniel Barenboim conductor
Jessye Norman soprano
Yvonne Minton mezzo-soprano
David Rendall tenor
Samuel Ramey bass
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis director
Recorded in Orchestra Hall in 1981
Deutsche Grammophon

DOWNS Bear Down, Chicago Bears
Sir Georg Solti conductor
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis director
Recorded in Orchestra Hall in 1986
London

HANDEL 
Messiah
Sir Georg Solti conductor
Elizabeth Hynes soprano
Anne Gjevang contralto
Keith Lewis tenor
Gwynne Howell bass
David Schrader harpsichord
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis director
Recorded in Orchestra Hall in 1984
London

HAYDN The Seasons
Sir Georg Solti conductor
Ruth Ziesak soprano
Uwe Heilmann tenor
René Pape bass
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis director
Recorded in Orchestra Hall in 1992
London

HAYDN The Creation
Sir Georg Solti conductor
Norma Burrowes soprano
Sylvia Greenberg soprano
Rüdiger Wohlers tenor
Siegmund Nimsgern bass-baritone
James Morris bass
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis director
Recorded in Orchestra Hall in 1984
London

IVES Orchestral Set No. 2
Morton Gould conductor
Members of the Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis director
Robert Schweitzer assistant director
Recorded in Medinah Temple in 1967
RCA

MAHLER Symphony No. 2 in C Minor 
(Resurrection)
Sir Georg Solti conductor
Isobel Buchanan soprano
Mira Zakai mezzo-soprano
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis director
Recorded in Medinah Temple in 1980
London

MAHLER Symphony No. 2 in C Minor
 (Resurrection)
Claudio Abbado conductor
Carol Neblett soprano
Marilyn Horne mezzo-soprano
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis director
Recorded in Orchestra Hall in 1976
Deutsche Grammophon

PROKOFIEV Alexander Nevsky

Fritz Reiner conductor
Rosalind Elias mezzo-soprano
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis director
Recorded in Orchestra Hall in 1959
RCA

SMITH/Stock The Star-Spangled Banner

Sir Georg Solti conductor
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis director
Recorded in Orchestra Hall in 1986
London

VERDI Opera Choruses
Sir Georg Solti conductor
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis director
Terry Edwards guest chorus director
Recorded in Orchestra Hall in 1989
London

VERDI 
Four Sacred Pieces
Sir Georg Solti conductor
Jo Ann Pickens soprano
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis director
Recorded in Medinah Temple in 1977-78
London

This article also appears here.

On August 26, 2021, Frank Villella, director of the Rosenthal Archives of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association, sat down with Cheryl Frazes Hill and Don Horisberger — both longtime members of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, both as singers and members of the conducting staff — to talk about their colleague and mentor Margaret Hillis

The recording of the conversation is here:

A few edited highlights from the conversation are below.

Villella: could you describe the first time you heard the Chicago Symphony Chorus?

Frazes Hill: As a young child, I heard the Chorus at the Ravinia Festival, and I was always fascinated. But the first up-close-and-personal experience was when my high school English teacher, Richard Livingston, a longtime member of the Chorus, invited me to a rehearsal. I remember Hillis walking in, precisely on time. After the warmup, she gave the downbeat, and this incredible sound enveloped me. I was just in awe. It was a sound like no other, and it was a great thrill.

Margaret Hillis onstage in Orchestra Hall in 1978 (Terry’s Photography)

Horisberger: I first heard the Chorus when I was singing in it. I got to know Miss Hillis as a student at Northwestern, and she encouraged me to audition. So, my first experience was sitting in the midst of the Chorus with all of those voices around me but not hearing it as a whole somehow. The thing that I most remember is not being particularly overwhelmed until I got out on stage for the first orchestra rehearsal and thought, “that is Georg Solti, this is the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.” He gave a downbeat, I breathed, and nothing happened for at least ten seconds. And I thought, “this is an illustrious start to my career.”

Villella: Let’s talk a little more about your interactions with Miss Hillis: her preparation process and how you would be involved, and how you assisted in rehearsals.

Horisberger: As most people came to experience, she was extremely organized. She knew from the very beginning what we were going to cover in each rehearsal. One of the things that I came to admire is that she really trusted her assistants, and she was incredibly supportive. 

Frazes Hill: There were exceptional times that she would meet with us, and I remember Stravinsky’s Les noces. She gave us not only marked scores but she also gave us her beat patterns, because there are various ways in which that piece can be conducted. She had worked that piece with Igor Stravinsky, so it was completely embedded in her arm a certain way.

Margaret Hillis and Doreen Rao (director of the Glen Ellyn Children’s Chorus) receive applause following the October 31, 1977, performance of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony in Carnegie Hall (Robert M. Lightfoot III)

Villella: The Orchestra and Chorus performed Mahler’s Eighth Symphony in Carnegie Hall on October 31, 1977, when Margaret Hillis replaced an injured Sir Georg Solti on the podium. You were both there.

Frazes Hill: After the third performance in Chicago was canceled, Miss Hillis told management, “If I was needed, I will be ready.” At the dress rehearsal in New York, none of us knew who would be conducting that evening. And when she walked out onto the stage, it was pretty clear to all of us that this was going to be on her shoulders. She said, “Please don’t try to help me. Just do your job, and I’ll do mine, and we’ll keep the whole shooting match together.” Later, we were onstage for the performance and the gentleman from Carnegie Hall came out and made the announcement that Sir Georg Solti was injured, and the sold-out audience let out a corporate groan. When he announced that in his place would be the conductor of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, he couldn’t even finish her name before the place erupted. We were all so proud, so nervous, there were so many emotions, and we had to come out with a big “Veni!”

The New York Times, page 1; November 1, 1977

Horisberger: We were all on pins and needles, wondering what was going to happen in New York. I remember thinking, “I wonder what she’s going to do in this section,” because her approach was different than Solti’s, and I was impressed that she was being very careful. This was my first time with the Orchestra and Chorus in Carnegie, I was overwhelmed by the response, and the applause went on and on and on.

Frazes Hill: When the final moments were over, there was such a collective sigh of relief and joy. Carnegie Hall audiences are always so incredibly enthusiastic when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus perform, and there’s always enormous applause. But this was something different and we knew it was all for her. And that made it even greater.

The New York Times, page 46; November 1, 1977

This article also appears here.

On September 22, 1957, the Orchestral Association announced Margaret Hillis would be organizing and training a chorus to perform with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Margaret Hillis (chorus director), Fritz Reiner (music director), and Walter Hendl (associate conductor) onstage with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in March 1959 (Oscar Chicago photo)

Prior to her appointment, in New York Hillis had established a respectable conducting career. Particularly as a female conductor, rarely seen in those days, she was making a favorable impression with audiences and critics with her careful concert programming, precise conducting and the beautiful singing of her ensemble, all of which contributed to her growing reputation as a fine musician and conductor.

During his first season as the Chicago Symphony’s sixth music director, Fritz Reiner had become dissatisfied with local choruses who were being engaged to collaborate with the Orchestra. So, in February 1954, he traveled to New York, seeking a professional chorus that could perform the difficult symphonic repertoire he hoped to program. Reiner knew of Hillis’s reputation as a fine choral conductor, and, after attending one of her rehearsals, hired her New York Concert Choir to appear the following season with the CSO. Hillis’s Concert Choir performed Samuel Barber’s recently composed Prayers of Kierkegaard and Orff’s Carmina Burana in March 1955, and they would return in January 1956 to perform Mozart’s Mass in C minor and Bruckner’s Te Deum.

When the Orchestra’s manager George Kuyper invited Hillis’s chorus to return for performances of Verdi’s Requiem in 1958, Hillis turned it down, insisting she would need an ensemble twice the size of that which she had brought to Chicago in past seasons. Explaining that a larger chorus would be prohibitively expensive, Hillis suggested “If you were thinking of [spending that much money to bring a chorus from New York], then start your own chorus.” Reiner called Hillis the next day, excited at the prospect of starting a chorus in Chicago. When Hillis offered to help the CSO organize the process, Reiner replied (in his thick Hungarian accent), “No, ve don’t have it unless you conduct.”

Hillis recalled being stunned by his statement. It had never dawned on her that Reiner would make such an offer. She hastily replied that she would call him back the next morning with her answer. Searching her datebook for bookings already lined up for the next year and a half, Hillis was surprised to discover that she had nearly every Monday night free as well as the performance dates for Verdi’s Requiem. She checked airline schedules and discovered that she could fly out to Chicago on Sunday nights and return on midnight flights back to New York after the Monday rehearsals. Calling Reiner the next day, Hillis agreed to accept the position.

The Chicago Symphony Chorus would make its informal debut on November 30, 1957, at a private concert for guarantors and sustaining members. Hillis took the podium during the second half of that concert to lead her new chorus, also becoming the first woman to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The CSC made its official debut with the Orchestra in Mozart’s Requiem on March 13 and 14, 1958, with Bruno Walter conducting and performed Verdi’s Requiem under Reiner the following month.

Hillis would serve as director of the Chorus for almost four decades, preparing the ensemble for countless performances in Chicago; New York; Washington, D.C.; London; and Salzburg under the batons of four music directors, numerous guest conductors, and her own.

In October 1997—a few short months before she died—Hillis sent a letter to the Chicago Symphony Chorus as they celebrated their fortieth season.

Dear People,

Happy anniversary to us! I remember so clearly that first rehearsal forty years ago. . . . When I first came here in the fall of 1957 to start a chorus for Reiner, I thought I’d be here for three or four years, get the chorus established and then turn it over to someone else. Each year was to be my last for the first six seasons. I realized that the challenge I had set for myself and you was to have a chorus that sang as well as the Chicago Symphony played, and I stayed thirty-seven years sustaining that ideal.

I think we accomplished it as much because of you, as it was of me. Your loyalty and steadfastness made it possible. May you continue this tradition of greatness in sound, phrasing, musicality and just plain fun in making great music.

The Chicago Symphony Chorus has indeed fulfilled Margaret Hillis’s wish, making an indelible mark upon the choral world with a tradition of excellence that continues today.

Cheryl Frazes Hill is associate director of the Chicago Symphony Chorus. She is the author of the forthcoming biography Margaret Hillis: Unsung Pioneer from GIA Publications.

This article also appears here.

Margaret Hillis in 1967
Margaret Hillis and John Edwards (general manager) at the Chicago Symphony Chorus’s twentieth anniversary reception in Orchestra Hall’s ballroom on May 19, 1977 (Terry’s Photography)
Margaret Hillis’s high school graduation portrait (ca. 1939) (Margaret Hillis Collection, Rosenthal Archives of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association)
Margaret Hillis and Sir Georg Solti during recording playbacks for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at the Krannert Center in May 1972 (Robert M. Lightfoot III)
Margaret Hillis (front row, second from left) and fellow flight instructors at the Muncie Airport (ca. 1942) (Margaret Hillis Collection, Rosenthal Archives of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association)
Margaret Hillis gives direction to the CSC during recording sessions for Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman at Medinah Temple in May 1976 (Robert M. Lightfoot III)
Daniel Barenboim helps Margaret Hillis celebrate her seventieth birthday on October 1, 1991 (Jim Steere)
Margaret Hillis gives direction to the CSC during recording sessions for Mahler’s Second Symphony at Medinah Temple in February 1976 (Robert M. Lightfoot III)
Margaret Hillis takes a bow with the CSC in Orchestra Hall on April 9, 1989 (Jim Steere)
Margaret Hillis leads the CSC in rehearsal for Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov in October 1984 (Jim Steere)
Gertrude Grisham (language coach) and members of the CSC listen to Margaret Hillis backstage at Medinah Temple during recording sessions for Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman in May 1976 (Robert M. Lightfoot III)
A teenaged Margaret Hillis at the piano (Margaret Hillis Collection, Rosenthal Archives of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association)
President Jimmy Carter with CSC members and Margaret Hillis at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner on April 28, 1979 (White House photo)
Margaret Hillis leads a rehearsal in Orchestra Hall (ca. 1970) (Robert M. Lightfoot III)
Sir Georg Solti, Margaret Hillis, and soloists along with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus following Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust at the Royal Albert Hall in London on August 28, 1989 (Jim Steere)
Margaret Hillis leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Bach’s Mass in B minor, celebrating the CSC’s tenth anniversary on December 17, 1967
Leonard Slatkin, Margaret Hillis, Ned Rorem, John Cheek, and Wendy White acknowledge applause following the world premiere of Rorem’s Goodbye My Fancy on November 8, 1990 (Jim Steere)
Margaret Hillis’s school photo during her first year at the Juilliard School (ca. 1942) (Margaret Hillis Collection, Rosenthal Archives of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association)
Margaret Hillis onstage at Orchestra Hall in 1987 (Jim Steere)
Margaret Hillis as a child (ca. 1924) (Margaret Hillis Collection, Rosenthal Archives of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Assocation)

This article also appears here.

Margaret Hillis founded the Chicago Symphony Chorus during the 1957-58 season and served as its director until 1994. (Terry’s Photography)

On October 1, 2021, we celebrate the centennial of Margaret Hillis (1921–1998), the founder and first director of the Chicago Symphony Chorus. She led the ensemble for thirty-seven years—from 1957 until 1994—influencing the development of symphonic choruses to a level of precision, polish and refinement akin to the orchestras with which they perform. Hillis’s achievements with the Chicago Symphony Chorus have served as a model which others continue to emulate.

Hillis was born to a prestigious family in Kokomo, Indiana. Her grandfather, Elwood Haynes, invented stainless steel and one of the first automobiles, and her father, Glenn Hillis, was a successful lawyer who narrowly lost the 1940 race for the governorship of Indiana. She was raised to believe she could do whatever she set out to accomplish, and her dream, from the time she was child, was to become an orchestral conductor. However, society had other plans for her. Hillis’s aspiration was not an option for women of her generation. Unable to pursue a direct route for her desired career, she would find her way to the podium through the “back door,” opting to pursue choral conducting instead.

During her youth, Hillis taught herself to play many instruments, settling upon double bass as she entered her formal musical studies at Indiana University. She briefly left college in December 1942 to become a civilian flight instructor with the US Navy, teaching young pilots to fly during World War II. After the war, Hillis completed her degree, and in 1947, she headed to the Juilliard School to study with Robert Shaw, a leader in the field of choral conducting. She was advised that this could be her only way to a conducting career. As one who had been steeped in orchestral music throughout her life, Hillis bravely pursued choral conducting, requiring her to learn an entirely new set of skills. She would quickly adapt, and after only a few short years, she formed her own ensemble in New York—the American Concert Choir—and quickly gained the respect of audiences and critics alike.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s sixth music director, Fritz Reiner, would soon discover Hillis’s outstanding work, and he invited her to start a chorus in Chicago. On March 13, 1958, the newly formed Chicago Symphony Chorus made its debut in Mozart’s Requiem with Bruno Walter conducting. During Hillis’s time as director of the Chorus, the ensemble regularly appeared with the CSO in Chicago and on tour, performing in Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, and in their 1989 European debut at London’s Royal Albert Hall and Salzburg’s Grosses Festspielhaus. Perhaps one of the most noteworthy events during Hillis’s directorship occurred on October 31, 1977, when she replaced Sir Georg Solti on short notice at Carnegie Hall for a performance of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, garnering international attention. 

In addition to Hillis’s success with the Chicago Symphony Chorus, she was recognized in her role of “breaking the glass ceiling” for women pursuing orchestral conducting careers. She was the first woman to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the first to regularly conduct a major symphony orchestra, and she contributed generously to the choral profession, establishing the American Choral Foundation, presiding as a founding member of the Association of Professional Vocal Ensembles (now Chorus America), and serving on the National Council of the National Endowment for the Arts. She also established the Do-It-Yourself Messiah tradition and was instrumental in the founding of the Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concerts series, both of which continue to thrive.

Throughout her career, Hillis tirelessly campaigned for the sustenance of professional singers, and she was equally passionate about teaching, serving on faculties of Northwestern and Indiana universities and leading countless conducting workshops. She received many honorary doctoral degrees and numerous recognitions—including nine Grammy awards—however, her greatest achievement was the rich legacy she established as she transformed the choral landscape. 

Though Margaret Hillis would earn the respect of the world’s major conductors along with the admiration and affection of many musicians, colleagues, and music lovers, her journey was not an easy one. She deftly circumvented the constant barriers in fields where women were not welcome. Despite the obstacles, Hillis’s legacy lives on, in the continued success of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, in more frequent appearances of women conducting orchestras and in professional choruses that flourish throughout the world.

Cheryl Frazes Hill is associate director of the Chicago Symphony Chorus. She is the author of the forthcoming biography Margaret Hillis: Unsung Pioneer from GIA Publications.

This article also appears here.

On August 26, 1971, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra—plus family members, administrative staff, trustees, governing members, and several members of the press—departed Chicago for Vienna, embarking on the ensemble’s first overseas tour to Europe.

Georg Solti, beginning his third season as eighth music director, and Carlo Maria Giulini, the first principal guest conductor, would join the Orchestra on the road for nearly six weeks for a tour that included twenty-five concerts in fifteen venues in nine countries: Austria, Belgium, England, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Scotland, and Sweden. The repertoire varied from symphonies by Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Haydn, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky; to piano concertos by Mozart and Prokofiev, featuring Vladimir Ashkenazy and Rafael Orozco; and orchestral works by Bartók, Berlioz, Carter, Ravel, and Stravinsky. No other international tour since has included more concerts or a wider variety of programming.

The detailed tour schedule is available here:

The first concert of the tour was given in Edinburgh’s Usher Hall on September 4, with Solti leading Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Carter’s Variations for Orchestra, and Brahms’s First Symphony (a video of most of that performance is available from ICA Classics). The final concert was given on October 5 in London’s Royal Festival Hall, with the Orchestra performing Mozart’s Symphony no. 39, Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole, and Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony under Giulini’s baton.

Tickertape parade down State and LaSalle streets on October 14, 1971 (Robert M. Lightfoot III photo)

Consistently welcomed and cheered by capacity audiences, the Orchestra received overwhelmingly favorable critical response. Upon their return to Chicago, the musicians were welcomed as heroes with a tickertape parade down State and LaSalle streets on October 14, 1971.

Before the Orchestra performed a single concert, there were four recording sessions for Mahler’s Eighth Symphony at the Sofiensaal in Vienna beginning on August 30. The cast included sopranos Heather HarperLucia Popp, and Arleen Augér; mezzo-soprano Yvonne Minton; contralto Helen Watts; tenor René Kollo; baritone John Shirley-Quirk; bass Martti Talvela; and three choruses: the Chorus of the Vienna State Opera, the Singverein Chorus, and the Vienna Boys Choir.

London Records released the recording in October 1972. In Gramophone, Edward Greenfield wrote, “Now at last Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand can be heard on record at something approaching its full, expansive stature. Here is a version from Solti which far more clearly than any previous one conveys the feeling of a great occasion. Just as a great performance, live in the concert hall, takes off and soars from the very start, so the impact of the great opening on ‘Veni, creator spiritus’ tingles here with electricity . . . [with] playing from the Chicago orchestra that shows up all rivals in precision of ensemble, Solti’s performance sets standards beyond anything we have known before. . . . This is as near a live performance as the dynamic Solti can make it. At times, the sheer physical impact makes one gasp for breath, and I found myself at the thunderous end of the first movement shouting out in joyous sympathy, so overwhelming is the build-up of tension. . . . No doubt one day the achievement of this first really great recording of Mahler’s Eighth will be surpassed, but in the meantime I can only urge all Mahlerians—and others too—to share the great experience which Solti and his collaborators offer.”

The recording would win three 1972 Grammy awards for Album of the Year–ClassicalBest Choral Performance–Classical (other than opera), and Best Engineered Recording–Classical.

This article also appears here. Portions of this article previously appeared herehere, and here.

Michael Morgan in 1986 (Jim Steere photo)

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra family mourns the death of Michael Morgan, who died on August 20, 2021, in Oakland, California. Morgan served as assistant conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1986 until 1993. He was sixty-three.

“Michael Morgan was a very important part of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra,” wrote Henry Fogel, who served as executive director and president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association from 1985 until 2003. “As an assistant conductor, he gave a number of important performances, and he was an extraordinarily valuable part of the CSO’s educational and community engagement programs. As one of the first African American conductors to achieve an important career, Michael was a true pioneer. His thirty-year tenure as music director of the Oakland Symphony is a testament to his skills as a musician and a leader. I am deeply saddened to learn of his passing, which happened far too soon.”

In March 1986, Sir Georg Solti announced the appointment of Kenneth Jean as associate conductor and Michael Morgan as assistant conductor, beginning with the 1986–87 season: “I think we have found two young men with both musical and personal credentials that will be a great asset to the Orchestra in its important community programs.”

Less than a week after the announcement was made, Morgan joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra—along with Solti and guest conductor Daniel Barenboimon tour to Asia. He made his podium debut with the Civic Orchestra on April 10, 1987, leading Verdi’s Overture to La forza del destino, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with Michi Sugiura, Mozart’s Symphony no. 36, and Ravel’s La valse, and the following month, he made his debut conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on a series of concerts for children.

Michael Morgan leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Arutunian’s Trumpet Concerto with Robert Klug as soloist, during the Illinois Young Performers Competition on May 2, 1989 (Jim Steere photo)

In late May 1987, Solti suffered a knee injury, causing him to cancel concerts in Chicago. Morgan was called upon to make an unexpected subscription concert debut on May 26, conducting two “of the most formidable works in the symphonic repertory, Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, without benefit of rehearsal,” according to John von Rhein in the Chicago Tribune. “The conductor was obviously well prepared. He kept his wits about him. He maintained a clear, steady beat. . . . This great ensemble was willing to provide the same, highly disciplined level of performance that it would produce for Solti or any famous guest conductor.”

Morgan continued to be a frequent presence on the podium, regularly leading subscription concerts, run-outs to Christ Universal Temple, youth and high school concerts, and the Illinois Young Performers Competition. In November 1992, he led a concert version of Anthony Davis’s X, The Life and Times of Malcom X.

When his and Jean’s appointments were first announced, Morgan commented, “I consider the members of the CSO to be our primary teachers. Because it’s highly unlikely either of us is going to say anything to them that they haven’t heard before. So, it’s wonderful when they come to us and share their experiences with so many of the world’s great conductors. It helps you feel a part of the family.”

Numerous tributes have been posted, including the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Mercury News, among others.

This article also appears here.

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