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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.

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