Margaret Hillis, 76, Conductor
Led Chicago Symphony Chorus
By ALLAN KOZINN
Published: February 6, 1998 in The New York Times
Margaret Hillis, who founded the Chicago Symphony Chorus and was the first woman to conduct the Chicago Symphony itself, died yesterday at Evanston Hospital, in Evanston, Ill. She was 76, and lived in Wilmette, Ill.
The cause was lung cancer, said Synneve Carlino, a spokeswoman for the Chicago Symphony.
Ms. Hillis, who appeared as a guest conductor with many American orchestras, including the National Symphony, the St. Louis Symphony, the Oregon Symphony and the Minnesota Orchestra, often said that orchestral conducting was her first love. She established herself as a choral conductor, however, because there were virtually no orchestral conducting opportunities for women when she began her career in the 1950's.
''I learned to take a strong disadvantage and turn it to my advantage,'' she once said, and indeed, her work with the Chicago Symphony Chorus, as well as the choruses of the San Francisco Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra, brought her considerable renown.
It also helped smooth her path to orchestral podiums. In 1957, when she started her chorus in Chicago, she made her conducting debut with the Chicago Symphony. She led the orchestra several times thereafter, both in Chicago and on tour
In 1977, she had a notable appearance as a last-minute substitute for Sir Georg Solti, who had fallen ill, in a performance of Mahler's Eighth Symphony at Carnegie Hall.
Ms. Hillis was born in Kokomo, Ind., in 1921. She began studying the piano when she was 5, but said that by the time she was 8 she began dreaming of becoming a conductor. She studied music at Indiana University in Bloomington, but suspended her studies during World War II to become a civilian flight instructor in Muncie, Ind.
After she completed her bachelor's degree in 1947, Ms. Hillis moved to New York, where she studied choral conducting with Robert Shaw at the Juilliard School. She soon became Mr. Shaw's assistant at the Collegiate Chorale, and in 1950 she founded the Tanglewood Alumni Chorus, which later performed as the New York Concert Choir and Orchestra.
In the 1950's she also worked as a choral conductor for the New York City Opera and the American Opera Society. During her years in New York she taught choral conducting at the Juilliard School and Union Theological Seminary, and she formed the American Choral Foundation, an organization that sought to raise the standards of choral performance.
The conductor Fritz Reiner invited her to start a chorus for the Chicago Symphony in 1957, and within a decade she had established one of the finest professional choirs in the country.
She also began working with community and regional orchestras, and was director for several years of the Kenosha Civic Orchestra, the Chicago Civic Orchestra and the Elgin Symphony. Starting in the late 1970's, she worked more actively as a guest conductor.
Although the directors of orchestral choirs do most of their work behind the scenes, rehearsing their choruses for performances conducted by the orchestra's music director or a guest conductor, Ms. Hillis's work with the Chicago Symphony Chorus was widely praised. She received Grammy awards for nine recordings for which she prepared the chorus for Mr. Solti, among them a Verdi Requiem, Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, two recordings of the Brahms German Requiem, Haydn's 'Creation' and Bach's Mass in B minor.
Ms. Hillis is survived by three brothers: Elwood Hillis, a former Congressman, of Culver, Ind; Robert Hillis of Kokomo, and Joseph Hillis of Lafayette, Calif.
She had a sense of humor about her struggle for recognition in a profession dominated by men. ''There's only one woman I know who could never be a symphony conductor,'' she told The New York Times in 1979, ''and that's the Venus de Milo.''
This interview was recorded at the suburban Chicago home of Margaret
Hillis on July 29, 1986. Portions (along with recordings) were used
on WNIB later that year, and again several times thereafter. This transcription
was made and posted on this website in 2010.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago. You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.