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Ned Rorem in 1984 (Jack Mitchell photo)

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra family joins the music world in mourning the loss of American pianist, diarist, and Pulitzer Prize–winning composer Ned Rorem. He died at his home in Manhattan on November 18, 2022, at the age of ninety-nine.

Rorem was born in Richmond, Indiana, on October 23, 1923, and his family soon moved to Chicago. He expressed a talent for music at a young age and attended the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools and the American Conservatory of Music. As a young musician, he regularly attended concerts in Orchestra Hall, where he “was exposed to contemporary music simultaneously with the standard classics. From the very start, I saw—heard—that the present was every bit as vital as the past, a truth made obvious when the two were interlarded.” Rorem later attended Northwestern University, the Curtis Institute, and the Juilliard School.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus performed a number of Rorem’s works, including the world premiere of Goodbye My Fancy, commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on the occasion of its centennial season. “Goodbye My Fancy finds, both musically and expressively, the inner coherence it strives for,” John von Rhein wrote in the Chicago Tribune, following the first performance on November 8, 1990. “Rorem’s music remains blissfully oblivious to the blandishments of what used to be called modernism: the score is dated 1988 but sounds as if it could been written thirty years earlier. No American composer sets American words more sensitively; no composer is more alive to Whitman’s fierce passions. Rorem’s choral writing savors leanness, elegance and subtlety, even when it roars. The deployment of massed and solo voices with instruments is telling, the cumulative impact affecting. . . . the shining stars of the occasion were the Chicago Symphony Chorus. As prepared by director Margaret Hillis, the CSO contingent sang with firm consonants, clear vowels, full and forward tone and fervent dedication. They were magnificent to hear. Goodbye My Fancy is a work that deserves to be in the repertory of America’s best symphony choruses. But I doubt that any of them will be able to make its Whitmanesque music leap off the page more exactly or vividly than Hillis’s sterling ensemble.”

A complete list of his works performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus is below:

August 4, 1959, Ravinia Festival
ROREM Symphony No. 3
Alfred Wallenstein, conductor

November 12 and 13, 1959, Orchestra Hall
ROREM Design for Orchestra
Fritz Reiner, conductor

July 14, 1962, Ravinia Festival
ROREM Eagles
William Steinberg, conductor

Leonard Slatkin, Margaret Hillis, Ned Rorem, John Cheek, and Wendy White following the world premiere of Goodbye My Fancy on November 8, 1990 (Jim Steere photo)

June 15 and 16, 1972, Orchestra Hall
ROREM Piano Concerto in Six Movements
Irwin Hoffman, conductor
Jerome Lowenthal, piano

January 6, 7, and 9, 1977, Orchestra Hall
ROREM Air Music, Ten Variations for Orchestra
Guido Ajmone-Marsan, conductor

April 24, 25, and 26, 1986, Orchestra Hall
ROREM An American Oratorio
Margaret Hillis, conductor
Donald Kaasch, tenor
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis, director

November 8, 9, and 10, 1990, Orchestra Hall
ROREM Goodbye My Fancy (world premiere)
Leonard Slatkin, conductor
Wendy White, mezzo-soprano
John Cheek, bass-baritone
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis, director

On June 3, 1990, Rorem made a rare appearance as a pianist in Orchestra Hall, accompanying soprano Arleen Augér. “The idea of pairing Augér, one of the few American singers who really care about American vocal music, with composer-pianist Rorem, who has done more than any other living American to cultivate the art of native song, was an inspired one,” wrote John von Rhein in the Chicago Tribune. “Fully half of the program was given over to his songs. Throughout the program, Rorem’s accompaniments were rich in the special insights perhaps only a composer who happens to be a skilled pianist can bring to them.”

Numerous tributes have been posted online, including AP News, NPR, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, among several others.

Ned Rorem and former CSO Composer-in-Residence John Corigliano give a pre-concert conversation in Orchestra Hall’s ballroom on November 8, 1990

This article also appears here.

Daniel Barenboim (Don Getsug photo)

Wishing a very happy eightieth birthday to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s ninth music director, Daniel Barenboim!

Barenboim’s history in Chicago began on January 19, 1958, when the fifteen-year-old pianist first performed a solo recital in Orchestra Hall. When he returned that fall for a second engagement, he attended his first CSO concert, which included sixth music director Fritz Reiner leading Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben. In his autobiography A Life in Music, Barenboim recounted that, “nothing I had heard in Europe or elsewhere had prepared me for the shock of the precision, the volume, and the intensity of the Chicago orchestra. It was like a perfect machine with a beating human heart.”

In June 1965, Barenboim made his debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Ravinia Festival in Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto with André Previn, and in February 1969, he first appeared with the Orchestra in Orchestra Hall in Bartók’s First Piano Concerto with Pierre Boulez. He first conducted the Orchestra in November 1970 at Michigan State University, and the first work on the program was Dvořák’s Cello Concerto with Jacqueline du Pré; a week later, they recorded it in Medinah Temple. Over the next two decades, Barenboim regularly appeared with the Orchestra, as a guest conductor—in Orchestra Hall, on tour, and in the recording studio—and piano soloist.

In January 1989, it was announced that Daniel Barenboim would succeed Sir Georg Solti to become the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s ninth music director, beginning with the 1991-92 season. His music directorship was distinguished by the opening of Chicago’s new Symphony Center in 1997, operatic productions in Orchestra Hall, appearances with the Orchestra in the dual role of pianist and conductor, and numerous international tours (see hereherehere, and here). Barenboim continued the cultivation of the composer-in-residence program and led the CSO in more than 30 world and U.S. premieres. In 1994, he appointed Duain Wolfe as director of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, succeeding founding director Margaret Hillis, and he collaborated with the Civic Orchestra, including leading the ensemble’s debut at Carnegie Hall in March 2000.

Daniel Barenboim and Jacqueline du Pré during a recording session for Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in Medinah Temple on November 11, 1970 (Robert M. Lightfoot III photo)

Barenboim amassed an extensive discography with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (see hereherehere, and here), including works by Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, Falla, Mahler, Rimsky-Korsakov, Schumann, Richard Strauss, Tchaikovsky, and Wagner; and concertos with Jacqueline du Pré, Lang Lang, Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Maxim Vengerov, Pinchas Zukerman, and several members of the Orchestra.

As a piano recitalist and chamber musician, Barenboim collaborated with an extraordinary roster of instrumentalists and singers in Orchestra Hall. He performed a dizzying array of repertoire, including Albéniz’s Iberia; Bach’s Goldberg Variations and The Well-Tempered Clavier (books 1 and 2); Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion; Beethoven’s sonatas for violin and cello; Berg’s Chamber Concerto for Piano, Violin and Thirteen Wind Instruments; Brahms’ cello sonatas; Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time; Mozart’s violin sonatas; and song cycles by Mahler, Schubert, Schumann, Wagner, and Wolf; along with countless piano works by Chopin, Debussy, Liszt, Schoenberg, and Schubert, among others.

In May and June 2006, during his final residency as music director, Barenboim led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in a number of valedictory works, including Carter’s Soundings; Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 27 (conducting from the keyboard); the final act of Wagner’s Parsifal; and the ninth symphonies of Beethoven, Bruckner, and Mahler. He most recently appeared with the Orchestra in November 2018, leading Smetana’s Má vlast.

Happy birthday, maestro!

danielbarenboim.com

This article also appears here.

Radu Lupu (Mary Roberts for Decca)

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra family joins the music world in mourning the loss of the remarkable Romanian pianist Radu Lupu. He died in Lausanne, Switzerland, on April 17, 2022, following a long illness. He was seventy-six.

A frequent performer with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for nearly fifty years, Lupu appeared with the ensemble in Orchestra Hall, at the Ravinia Festival, in Carnegie Hall, and on tour to Bucharest, Romania and Berlin, Germany.

“I was deeply affected when I heard about the passing of Radu Lupu, one of the greatest pianists of our time,” Riccardo Muti wrote from his home in Ravenna. “I had great respect for him as an artist, and we always looked forward to making music together. It was with Lupu that I led memorable performances of Beethoven’s five piano concertos with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, and I will always treasure that experience. I am so grateful for his most recent visit with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2017 for even more Beethoven. He was a wonderful and sensitive person and I considered him a dear friend.”

Lupu made his debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in October 1972, under the baton of Carlo Maria Giulini. “Six years ago, a young Romanian pianist named Radu Lupu won the quadrennial Van Cliburn International Competition and then returned quietly to his studies. Last night, twenty-seven now and bearded, he made a historic local debut in Beethoven’s Third Concerto,” wrote Roger Dettmer in the Chicago Tribune. “Reports of his achievement should include a mention of phenomenal technical command, a range of tonal color and dynamics evidently unlimited, and a control of nuances as well as the big moments that awed. . . . As no other pianist in memory, not even Rachmaninov, he became a spirit trumpet through whom we heard the composer speak.”

A complete list of his performances is below:

Radu Lupu and Riccardo Muti backstage at Orchestra Hall on April 29, 2017 (Todd Rosenberg Photography)

October 5 and 6, 1972, Orchestra Hall
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37
Carlo Maria Giulini, conductor

August 1, 1973, Ravinia Festival
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73 (Emperor)
Lawrence Foster, conductor

August 3, 1973, Ravinia Festival
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15
Lawrence Foster, conductor

April 18 and 19, 1974, Orchestra Hall
MOZART Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488
Sir Georg Solti, conductor

August 6, 1977, Ravinia Festival
BRAHMS Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 15
Edo de Waart, conductor

August 7, 1977, Ravinia Festival
MOZART Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K. 467
Franz Allers, conductor

January 12, 13, and 14, 1978, Orchestra Hall
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 19
Erich Leinsdorf, conductor

Radu Lupu performs Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Riccardo Muti on April 27, 2017 (Todd Rosenberg Photography)

March 26, 27, and 28, 1981, Orchestra Hall
BEETHOVEN Fantasy in C Minor for Piano, Chorus, and Orchestra, Op. 80 (Choral Fantasy)
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis, director
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58
Daniel Barenboim, conductor

March 8, 9, and 10, 1984, Orchestra Hall
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73 (Emperor)
Leonard Slatkin, conductor

January 31, February 1, 2, and 5, 1991, Orchestra Hall
MOZART Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, K. 491
Neeme Järvi, conductor

February 10, 11, 12, and 15, 1994, Orchestra Hall
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58
Daniel Barenboim, conductor

January 31, 1996, Orchestra Hall
MOZART Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major, K. 448
Daniel Barenboim, piano
MOZART Concerto for Three Pianos in F Major, K. 242
Elena Bashkirova, piano
Daniel Barenboim, conductor and piano
MOZART Concerto for Two Pianos in E-flat Major, K. 365
Daniel Barenboim, conductor and piano

January 30, 31, February 1, and 4, 1997, Orchestra Hall
SCHUMANN Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 54
Daniel Barenboim, conductor

Radu Lupu and Riccardo Muti following a performance of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on April 27, 2017 (Todd Rosenberg Photography)

September 19, 1998, Sala Mare a Palatului, Bucharest, Romania
SCHUMANN Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 54
Daniel Barenboim, conductor

January 12, 14, 15, and 16, 1999, Orchestra Hall
MOZART Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488
Daniel Barenboim, conductor

February 10, 11, 12, and 15, 2000, Orchestra Hall
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 19
David Zinman, conductor

April 22, 2000, Philharmonie, Berlin, Germany
BRAHMS Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 15
Daniel Barenboim, conductor

February 21, 22, and 23, 2002, Orchestra Hall
MOZART Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat Major, K. 595
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor

October 3, 2002, Carnegie Hall, New York
BRAHMS Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 15
Daniel Barenboim, conductor

February 13, 14, and 16, 2003, Orchestra Hall
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73 (Emperor)
Daniel Barenboim, conductor

Radu Lupu (Zdenek Chrapek photo)

February 16, 17, and 18, 2006, Orchestra Hall
MOZART Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466
MOZART Concerto for Two Pianos in E-flat Major, K. 365
Daniel Barenboim, conductor and piano

February 25, 26, 27, and March 2, 2010, Orchestra Hall
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37
Gianandrea Noseda, conductor

January 10, 11, 12, and 15, 2013, Orchestra Hall
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15
Edo de Waart, conductor

April 27, 28, and 29, 2017, Orchestra Hall
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73 (Emperor)
Riccardo Muti, conductor

Following the April 27, 2017, performance of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, Hedy Weiss in the Chicago Sun-Times wrote, “Lupu’s often quiet but brilliantly expressive articulation compels listening by means of understatement, and yet there is an undeniable grandeur about it. And in tandem with the orchestra, he brought a dreamy tranquility to the slow passages of this familiar work that was metabolism-altering. The pianist’s emotional connection and eye contact with both Muti and the CSO musicians was both visible and audible at every moment.”

Lupu also gave a number of recitals in Orchestra Hall, as follows:

February 10, 1988 (with Murray Perahia)
January 21, 1990
February 13, 1994 (with Daniel Barenboim)
January 31, 1996 (with Daniel Barenboim)
February 11, 1996 (with Daniel Barenboim)
February 9, 1997 (with Daniel Barenboim)
January 21, 1998
November 24, 2000 (with Daniel Barenboim)
January 27, 2002
January 15, 2004 (with the Staatskapelle Berlin and Daniel Barenboim)
February 19, 2006 (with Daniel Barenboim)
February 10, 2008
January 31, 2010

This article also appears here.

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony—according to Frederick Stock, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra‘s second music director, in Talks About Beethoven’s Symphonies—is “dedicated to all Mankind. Embracing all phases of human emotion, monumental in scope and outline, colossal in its intellectual grasp and emotional eloquence, the Ninth stands today as the greatest of all symphonies.”

First page detail of a choral score, edited by Arthur Mees, the Orchestra’s first assistant conductor

Stock continues: “The Ninth is unquestionably the greatest of all symphonies not only because it is the final résumé of all of Beethoven’s achievements, colossal as they are even without the Ninth, but also because it voices the message of one who had risen beyond himself, beyond the world and the time in which he lived. The Ninth is Beethoven, the psychic and spiritual significance of his life.

“In the first movement we find the bitter struggle he waged against life’s adversities, his failing health, his deafness, his loneliness. The Scherzo depicts the quest for worldly joy; the third movement, melancholy reflection, longing—resignation. The last movement, the ‘Ode to Joy,’ is dedicated to all Mankind.”

“There’s something astonishing about a deaf composer choosing to open a symphony with music that reveals, like no other music before it, the very essence of sound emerging from silence,” writes CSOA scholar-in-residence and program annotator Phillip Huscher. “The famous pianissimo opening—sixteen measures with no secure sense of key or rhythm—does not so much depict the journey from darkness to light, or from chaos to order, as the birth of sound itself or the creation of a musical idea. It is as if the challenges of Beethoven’s daily existence—the struggle to compose music, his difficulty in communicating, the frustration of remembering what it was like to hear—have been made real in a single page of music.”

Founder and first music director Theodore Thomas first led the Chicago Orchestra in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on December 16 and 17, 1892, at the Auditorium Theatre. The soloists were Minnie Fish, Minna Brentano, Charles A. Knorr, and George E. Holmes, along with the Apollo Chorus (prepared by William L. Tomlins).

1961 recording (RCA)

Sixth music director Fritz Reiner led the Orchestra’s first recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on May 1 and 2, 1961, in Orchestra Hall. Phyllis Curtin, Florence Kopleff, John McCollum, and Donald Gramm were the soloists, and the Chicago Symphony Chorus was prepared by Margaret Hillis. For RCA, Richard Mohr was the producer and Lewis Layton was the recording engineer.

1972 recording (London)

Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus first recorded Beethoven’s nine symphonies between May 1972 and September 1974 for London Records. The recordings were ultimately released as a set (along with three overtures: Egmont, Coriolan, and Leonore no. 3); that set won the 1975 Grammy Award for Classical Album of the Year from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. The Ninth Symphony was recorded at the Krannert Center at the University of Illinois in Urbana on May 15 and 16, and June 26, 1972. Pilar Lorengar, Yvonne Minton, Stuart Burrows, and Martti Talvela were the soloists, and the Chicago Symphony Chorus was prepared by Margaret Hillis. David Harvey was the recording producer, and Gordon Parry, Kenneth Wilkinson, and Peter van Biene were the balance engineers.

1986 recording (London)

Between September 1986 and January 1990, Solti and the Orchestra and Chorus recorded the complete Beethoven symphonies a second time, again for London Records; and again, the recordings were ultimately released as a set (along with two overtures: Egmont and Leonore no. 3). The Ninth Symphony was recorded in Medinah Temple on September 29 and 30, 1986. Michael Haas was the recording producer, John Pellowe the balance engineer, and Neil Hutchinson the tape editor. Jessye Norman, Reinhild Runkel, Robert Schunk, and Hans Sotin were soloists, and Margaret Hillis prepared the Chorus. The release won the 1987 Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

On September 18, 20, 21, and 23, 2014, Riccardo Muti led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Orchestra Hall. Camilla Nylund, Ekaterina Gubanova, Matthew Polenzani (September 18), William Burden (September 20, 21, and 23), and Eric Owens were the soloists, and the Chorus was prepared by Duain Wolfe. The performance on September 18 was recorded for YouTube and is available in the link below.

Riccardo Muti leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 on February 24, 25, 26, and 27, 2022.

This article also appears here.

Richard Oldberg in the early 1960s

We have just learned of the passing of Richard Oldberg, a longtime member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s horn section, who died in Estes Park, Colorado on December 27, 2021. He was eighty-three.

Born on June 21, 1938, in Evanston, Illinois, Oldberg began his horn studies in the public school system and received instruction from Charles Zweigler and later Max Pottag (CSO horn, 1907–1946). He attended the summer music programs at Interlochen Arts Camp, and he later attended Harvard and Northwestern universities, where he studied with two CSO principal horns, Philip Farkas and Christopher Leuba. A lip injury temporarily forced him to give up the horn, and he briefly turned to premedical studies. However, in January 1962, with encouragement from Leuba, Oldberg was invited to perform as an extra horn with the CSO. He continued to work as a regular substitute and was invited by new music director Jean Martinon to join the Orchestra as assistant principal horn beginning with the 1963–64 season. Following the departure of Wayne Barrington the following season, Oldberg moved to third horn, remaining in that position for the next twenty-nine years until his retirement in 1993.

Oldberg was a frequent soloist with the Orchestra and appeared in Strauss’s Second Horn Concerto with Irwin Hoffman conducting, as well as Schumann’s Konzertstück for Four Horns on numerous occasions under Daniel Barenboim, James Levine, Michael Morgan, and Sir Georg Solti. In March 1977, Oldberg—along with his colleagues Dale Clevenger, Norman Schweikert, and Thomas Howell—was soloist in a recording of Schumann’s Konzertstück under Barenboim’s baton for Deutsche Grammophon.

His grandfather, Arne Oldberg, was a prominent composer, pianist, and educator, serving on the faculty at Northwestern University from 1897 until 1941. Between 1909 and 1954, the CSO gave the world premieres of sixteen of his works, including his Third, Fourth, and Fifth symphonies and a violin concerto. One of Arne’s sons (and Richard’s uncle), Eric Oldberg, was a prominent neurosurgeon in Chicago, and he served as president of the Orchestral Association from 1952 until 1963 and later as a life trustee. Eric presided over the appointment of both Fritz Reiner as sixth music director in 1953 and Margaret Hillis as founder and first director of the Chicago Symphony Chorus in 1957.

A dedicated educator, Richard Oldberg served on the faculty at Northwestern University for many years. After leaving Chicago, he was principal horn and guest conductor with the Boulder Philharmonic in Colorado, regularly leading their annual performances of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker with the Boulder Ballet. In his retirement, he enjoyed his longtime hobbies of book collecting (mostly Sherlock Holmes and mountaineering), model railroads, and hand-copying the scores of Richard Wagner’s operas. He and his wife Mary were longtime members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Alumni Association.

In a July 1989 interview for the CSO’s Oral History Project, Oldberg reflected on his time in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. “I’ve had a grand time. I’m the luckiest person on the face of the earth. Like Lou Gehrig said, I’m doing what I want to do. This isn’t work, this is fun, and I’m having a wonderful time doing it, playing the music that we play, and so, I’m a very happy fellow as a result.”

Richard Oldberg’s wife Mary preceded him in death in 2019. He is survived by his son David from a previous marriage.

This article also appears 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.

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