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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.

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With the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Sir Georg Solti conducted Bach’s monumental Saint Matthew Passion on four different occasions at Orchestra Hall:

April 9 and 10, 1971
Jesus: Tom Krause
Evangelist: Richard Lewis
Aria soloists: Heather Harper, Helen Watts, Richard Lewis, Donald Gramm
Other vocal soloists: Alfred Reichel, Stephen Swanson, Nancy Clevenger, Ellen Rico, Linda Mabbs, Jack Abraham, Eugene Johnson, Frederic Chrislip, Karen Zajac
Obbligati: Donald Peck, Richard Graef, Ray Still, Richard Kanter, Grover Schiltz, DeVere Moore, Victor Aitay, Sidney Weiss, Eva Heinitz
Continuo: Eloise Niwa, Frank Miller, Joseph Guastafeste
Chicago Symphony Chorus; Margaret Hillis, director
Glen Ellyn Children’s Theatre Chorus; Barbara Born, director
These performances were dedicated to the memory of Igor Stravinsky, who had died on April 6, 1971.

April 12 and 13, 1974
Jesus: Gwynne Howell
Evangelist: Mallory Walker
Aria soloists: Heather Harper, Helen Watts, Jerry Jennings, Philip Booth
Other vocal soloists: Alfred Reichel, Curtis Dickson, Gershon Silins, Stephen Swanson, Donna Gullstrand, Alexis Darden, Sarah Beatty, Richard Livingston, Philip Creech, Isola Jones
Obbligati: Donald Peck, Richard Graef, Louise Dixon, Walfrid Kujala, Ray Still, Richard Kanter, Grover Schiltz, Michael Henoch, Victor Aitay, Samuel Magad, John Hsu
Continuo: Eloise Niwa, Mary Sauer, Frank Miller, Joseph Guastafeste
Chicago Symphony Chorus; Margaret Hillis, director
Glen Ellyn Children’s Chorus; Doreen Rao, director

April 4 and 6, 1985
Jesus: Wolfgang Schoene
Evangelist: Anthony Rolfe Johnson
Aria soloists: Pamela Coburn, Brigitte Fassbaender, Thomas Moser, Siegmund Nimsgern
Other vocal soloists: Bruce Cain, Richard Cohn, Jane Green, Joan Welles, Doris Kirschner, Karen Zajac, Tim O’Connor
Obbligati: Donald Peck, Richard Graef, Louise Dixon, Walfrid Kujala, Ray Still, Richard Kanter, Grover Schiltz, Michael Henoch, Victor Aitay, Samuel Magad, Catharina Meints
Continuo: Mary Sauer, David Schrader, Richard Webster, Leonard Chausow, Joseph Guastafeste
Chicago Symphony Chorus; Margaret Hillis, director
Glen Ellyn Children’s Chorus; Doreen Rao, director

Saint Matthew Passion recording session in Orchestra Hall

March 19 and 21, 1987
Jesus: Olaf Bär
Evangelist: Hans Peter Blochwitz
Aria soloists: Kiri Te Kanawa, Anne Sofie von Otter, Thomas Moser, Tom Krause
Other vocal soloists: Richard Cohn, Patrice Michaels, Debra Austin, William Watson
Obbligati: Donald Peck, Richard Graef, Louise Dixon, Walfrid Kujala, Ray Still, Judith Kulb, Grover Schiltz, Michael Henoch, Samuel Magad, Rubén González, Catharina Meints, Mary Sauer
Continuo: David Schrader, John Sharp, Joseph Guastafeste
Chicago Symphony Chorus; Margaret Hillis, director
Glen Ellyn Children’s Chorus; Lucy Ding, acting director

Following the performances in March 1987, the work was recorded for London Records. Andrew Cornall was the producer, and Simon Eadon and John Pellowe were the engineers.

Solti, members of the Orchestra, and soloists listen to playbacks

I inadvertently neglected to include the 1971 performances in the first version of this post. —FV

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