Conductor  Margaret  Hillis
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


As I have mentioned before in these presentations, growing up and living my life in Chicago has provided a constant source of wonderful music, and the expectation is always for greatness of performance.  One finds it all over the area and in many different kinds of circumstances.  Each of the large ensembles is justly famous, and they all breed smaller groups and influence colleagues so that the standard is upheld in every venue.  We bring in the best international performers, and the local talent must measure up to our high standards.  Our artists are justly famous, and in the choral field that means the Chicago Symphony Chorus.

Formed in 1957 by Margaret Hillis at the behest of Fritz Reiner, this group grew quickly in stature to match the level demanded by the orchestra.  The sound is simply amazing in the hall and their many recordings under different conductors reflect both the precision and flexibility which Hillis has built into the group.

When I called in 1986 and asked to see her, she told me to come by her home the following week.  When the date arrived, however, she was battling a severe cold, and since this was originally for a radio broadcast, she was concerned with her own sound.  I did not say this to her, but I speculated that it was probably one of the very few times in her life she even thought about herself this way.  So we put our appointment off for a day and she apologized saying that she
would have sounded like a goose honking. 

She had a naturally deep and resonant voice, and it almost matched my own baritone sound in timbre and range!  Her responses to my questions were always thoughtful, and usually given in a matter-of-fact tone that made it all seem as though everything was quite simply and obviously just as she was saying.  Her thoughts resonated with a quiet assuredness built upon decades of experience and satisfaction.

Here is that conversation . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:  When you are auditioning singers for a chorus, what do you look for?

Margaret Hillis:   I look for musicality, for intelligence, the ability to read, and the ability to sing well.

BD:    But you’re not looking for solo singers to be in a chorus, are you?

MH:    Sure.

BD:    Really???

MH:    Oh yes.  Oh yes. There are about 35 topnotch solo singers in the Chicago Symphony Chorus.

BD:    Is choral singing a good first step for someone who wants to be a solo singer?

MH:    Yes it is.  It is for several reasons.  First, if the vocal technique is very well established, it will not damage them singing in a chorus; they’ll know how to take care of themselves.  Second, they learn their languages and third, they learn ensemble.  I can tell when I work with a solo singer whether they have sung in a good chorus or not.  If they’ve sung in a good chorus, their sense of ensemble and balance, let’s say in quartet or a quintet, will be excellent.  If they haven’t, I’m constantly having to shush them or bring them up.  Also their rhythmic sense is developed in the chorus, plus they get a chance to work with many different conductors; they see the ways they have to learn to bend this way or that way to get something to work.  And then they also get to see the big international stars come in to see how they handle the solo work.  So there are a lot of advantages, especially their coaching that they get in languages.

BD:    It often seems that someone would say, “No, I don’t want to sing in the Chorus because I don’t want to get stuck staying in there all the time.”
MH:    I respond to that by saying, “Okay, you stay there five years and then you become like the first one I lost to the Met whose name was Sherrill Milnes.”  [Both laugh]  [See my Interviews with Sherrill Milnes]  And then the second and third and fourth.  I lose these people all the time.  Jimmy Levine tells me,
“If the singer comes from you, I know they’re trained.

BD:    So you’re a good recommendation, then.

MH:    Choruses are a good recommendation if the choral conductor is good.

BD:    In the Grove Dictionary it said that you and your work have significantly raised the standards of choral singing.  Is this something you set out to do or just a happy by product of all your hard work?

MH:    I think probably both.  My goal before I graduated from college was really to be an orchestral conductor.  I played in orchestras ever since I was a young girl from grade school on, and the orchestra was my great love, but in 1947, a woman conductor?  No way, so I was advised to go into choral conducting and told that I could get into the orchestral field through the back door, which I did and it worked that way.  I did a lot of guest conducting with orchestras with or without choruses.  As a matter of fact, I had my own orchestra in Elgin, Illinois, for fourteen years, and I had a ball with them, but when I first really got into it, the advice was to go into the choral field because a woman could not make a career at that point in the orchestral field.  If you try it, you are going to beat your head against a wall and waste your talent.  Going into the choral field was the best advice I ever got.  So I went into it.  I wanted to prove that a chorus could be as good as an orchestra.  From the time I was child, my mother took me to the opera and the sound I had in my head was Kirsten Flagstad.  I had studied voice, but she was my ideal of what a great vocal sound was.

BD:    Sound or technique or both?

MH:    The sound comes as the result of the technique.  If you are not aware of the technique, then it’s great.

BD:    So you try to build into your choruses the sound based on the technique so that you don’t hear the technique?

MH:    That’s right.  It is rumored that I am a stickler for diction.  If you want to wear blinders I suppose that’s true, except that the diction is at the service of the musical line.  If you need strong consonants to make it work, to get it to cut through the orchestra, fine, we do it; but if you need to mumble a little bit to get a good legato, we do that, too.  As to the sound itself, I am a little bit offended when people talk to me about
the Margaret Hillis sound.  I would rather that they caught on to the fact that this is the Fauré Requiem sound or the Mozart Requiem sound or the Verdi Requiem sound, which are entirely different sounds.

BD:    Will a Verdi Requiem or a Fauré Requiem under you sound different than under Robert Shaw or under any other great choral conductor?  [See my Interview with Robert Shaw.]

MH:    The Chicago Symphony sounds different from one guest conductor to another; each has his own conception.  When I prepare a chorus for somebody else, I try to get the sound into the neighborhood of what I think the composer had in his ear.  I don’t put my own stamp on it, but then whoever takes it over, it’s there, it’s prepared.  If they want a slightly different sound, it is easy to get.  If I put too much of a stamp on it, they can’t change it.

BD:    So you try to put the composer’s stamp on it rather than that of the conductor who will be arriving?

MH:    The composer is always the boss.

BD:    Have you ever had a case where the conductor says, “No, no, I don’t like this,” and change everything around?

MH:    Seldom.  Now and then I will conceive a phrase as being legato. That’s what Haydn or Mr. X wanted, but the conductor might conceive it as being marcato.  Because I have a uniform thing in the chorus, it is very easy to change.

BD:    So you really train your chorus to be flexible under composers and conductors.

MH:    Absolutely.  They even have to be flexible under me.

BD:    Does your style change from winter to summer, or from good mood to bad mood?

MH:    Not from good mood to bad mood.  I try never to impose that at all.  I consider that a professional obligation.  I’m not a moody person anyhow, but if I do have a bad mood, I don’t think the chorus ever knows it; but the conception changes from composer to composer.  It depends upon Verdi, it depends upon Fauré, it depends upon Haydn or Mozart or contemporary composers.  I try to put in what the score needs.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    It seems like you are almost at the whim of the director in the selection of repertoire.  He says what will be done this season or next season.

MH:    It’s not whim.  Sir Georg will go over all the repertory.  His obligation is to see to it that there’s a balanced diet for the Chicago audience, and when I conduct I do the same thing that all the guest conductors do.  I submit five or six programs in the order of my choice.  I nearly always get first choice, but now and then he’ll say, “Oh my dear, I am sorry I can’t give you your first choice.  There’s too much Mendelssohn already, or there’s too much Haydn already.
  Or he might say, I am delighted to have Haydn because we don’t have any, or I am delighted with Handel, we don’t have any.  He selects in terms of what he feels gives a balanced season.  That’s his job as music director.

BD:    He never imposes anything on you and says, “We must do such and such” that you haven’t even suggested?

MH:    No, he has never imposed that, but then I give him so many choices he doesn’t have something he wants to impose on me.

BD:    You talk about Verdi, Mendelssohn, Haydn, Handel, all the great works.  Where are the great new choral works coming from?

hillis MH:    Well, there are some.  There’s one that I did this past season by Ned Rorem that I think is a very strong work called American Oratorio.  [See my Interview with Ned Rorem.]  It’s based on texts of American poets and there’s some prose from Mark Twain in it.  That’s an extraordinary work.  I usually end up doing the world premieres or contemporary pieces that balance the season.  A couple of years ago I did a world premiere of a piece by Ezra Lederman called A Mass for Cain, which is a very imposing work.  I sort of keep my feelers out among the best of the composers.  There’s a work that I can’t mention right now because I don’t know whether it’s going to be programmed or not, but if Solti doesn’t want to do it, I going to ask him if I can do it.  That’s sort of the way it works.  Things will come across my desk.  I get stacks and stacks of hopeful works and I go through them very carefully and narrow them down to the strongest pieces.  Then I make my recommendations to Solti.  The idea is if he wants to do it, fine; if he doesn’t, then I’ll do it.  [See my Interviews with Sir Georg Solti.]
BD:    The ones you recommend are strongest in what way?

MH:    Musically, meaning is it another Beethoven.  When it comes to contemporary music, contemporary festivals are fine, but I am against it being billed as contemporary music.  It’s either good music or it’s bad music.

BD:    Is it wrong of the public to expect a new piece to be a master stroke?

MH:    Did they expect every Haydn symphony to be a master stroke?  We would never have heard of him if he died at the age of 50.  All his great works are after the age of 50.  Mozart’s greatest works are after the age of thirteen.  That’s something different, but there is a resistance in this age that didn’t used to be against new works in the classical field.  In Rock ‘n’ Roll they
’re always looking for something new, but in classical music there is a resistance to it.  I would rather just bill it as a piece by so-and-so on such-and-such a text.  Who cares whether it was written two hundred years ago or yesterday?  Every masterpiece was written yesterday.  It has that freshness and strength as if it were written yesterday.  If it is a true masterpiece it will speak to the audience.  Maybe not on the first performance, but eventually it will speak.  It will find its own way.

BD:    Is there a place in the repertoire for pieces that are good but not masterpieces?

MH:    Yes, I think so.  On a conglomerate sort of program running about eighty minutes, there may be four pieces like that.  You have to find things that will work along the program-line that are pleasant, that are beautiful, that are not one of the ten greatest masterpieces ever written; but they then work in such a way that they highlight masterpieces that are on the program.

BD:    Just as you are looking for new pieces, are you also searching through libraries for unknown old works?

MH:    I have an enormous library and I am constantly listening.  I am in touch with conductors who know the repertory thoroughly.  I discuss such problems with them saying, “Do you know such and such?” and they say, “Oh yes, that’s a wonderful piece,
or, “Such and such is terrible, don’t touch it, or, That bears looking into.  And if I get a strong enough recommendation, I look into it.  Of course, time is limited.  You do as much as you can with limited time.  

BD:    If a composer comes to you and says he or she would like to write a choral work, what advice do you have?

MH:    I say, “Go ahead.”

BD:    Do you have specific pointers to look for or watch out for?

MH:    No.  If it’s a young composer who still hasn’t any real experience with choral writing, I tell him go away and write the piece and then come to me and we’ll discuss it.  Some things may not sound and I’ll tell you what will sound and what won’t sound.  For example, if you put the basses and baritones in thirds way down low with the brass playing loud, you’re not going to hear the chorus.  I would advise him about.  

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    When you’re preparing a work, is it significantly different if there are vocal soloists or if it’s all choral with no soloists?

MH:    No.  It’s music, and I often say to the chorus or to people when now and then I give a lecture, “When a pianist plays, it’s called a sonata, when a trio plays, it’s called a trio, when a quartet plays, it’s called quartet, when an orchestra plays it, it’s called a symphony, and then the chorus joins in, it’s called a Missa Solemnis, but it’s all sonata form.  It’s all music.
  It’s the function, and the chorus is only one of the instruments in the orchestra.  It has its function there, and my job is to figure out exactly what the function was that was given to it by the composer.

BD:    So then you view it as a choral section, like the brass section or the string section.

MH:    That’s right.  They’re more like the brass section than they are like anybody else.

BD:    Why?  

MH:    Because of the breathing problems, the support problems.  If you give a very strenuous cue to the brass, they’re very likely to split; if you do the same thing to the chorus, they will speak their entrance instead of singing it.  The singer’s instrument in his throat is like the embouchure of a brass player.  They also have to have the support of the breathing the same way the brass players do.

BD:    Have you had Arnold Jacobs’ famous clinic?

MH:    No, I haven’t, but now that he’s retired, he’s threatening to join the chorus, and I’m going to welcome him if he does that.  I am going to ask him to do special clinics on breathing.

BD:    Do you view the chorus as single entity rather than a collection of individuals?

MH:    The string section
is that an entity or is it a collection of individuals?

BD:    I’m asking the director.

MH:    They are individuals and very have much their own personalities, but when you get into the group dynamics thing, what you’re looking for is the best contribution from each individual of musicality, intelligence, listening and vocalism, the same way you are in the string section.  In that way the chorus is like the string section.

at NU BD:    I have asked if there is a difference between preparing something with soloists and without.  What about an a cappella work as opposed to something that is accompanied?

MH:   That’s a different bag entirely.  They have no support from anyone; they have to make it all themselves.  That’s much more difficult, plus the intonation thing
with the orchestra they get some support.  I can’t say that this always true, because there are a cappella works that take very big sound, but most a cappella works take a very refined kind of sound.  They’re more like chamber music.  It’s like the difference between a string quart and the whole string section of the orchestra.  I always insist that they listen, but the listening has to be all the more intense, and the sense of chamber music even more so.  But I do insist, even in the Missa Solemnis, that it be chamber music they sing.

BD:    Does a piece itself also help to dictate the size of the chorus?

MH:    Yes.  Absolutely.  You don’t do a B Minor Mass with 250 singers for heaven’s sake!  You don’t do a Mahler Eighth with thirty.  The piece will dictate also the size of the hall in which you’re doing it.  If we do a B Minor Mass downtown at Orchestra Hall, I like to have about eighty singers because then in the one double chorus you virtually get forty in each; and there are funny requirements in it.  Sometimes the women are split four ways and you’ve got a lot of second altos; the seconds have to support what’s above so you need a lot of extra altos.  The men almost never split so I have fewer men than women in the B Minor Mass.  Although he never performed this piece, if we were doing it in the same size hall that Bach envisioned, then we use a much smaller amount, maybe thirty-five or thirty-eight singers.  But the piece itself was going to make the sound, also the hall and its acoustics because any music has to live at that moment for the audience.

BD:    So then you have no problems with playing music of Bach on contemporary instruments.

MH:    No, not at all.  Old instruments are fine if it’s in tune.

BD:    Which tuning?

MH:    That depends a little on the old instrumentalists.  They decide A-440 or 420 or whatever.

BD:    Equal temperament?

MH:    Well the whole intonation back then was different.  Though with the contemporary instruments and the way we play, I use an intonation in the chorus that has to do with high leading tones always.  It’s hard to prepare with the piano because it doesn’t have the same intonation we use, but I insist on those very high leading tones, and it works.  The orchestra uses that.  If they want the original, they have to use the old instruments and they have to use boys for sopranos and altos and then a small tenor and bass section.  It’s a different sound absolutely.

BD:    So trebles are different than sopranos.

MH:    Absolutely.  And if you are going to use the old instruments, I think you are under obligation then in the chorus to use boy sopranos and altos.  It’s not in balance otherwise.  You are also under obligation use the Bach trumpet which balances with the flute.

BD:    It’s treacherous to play.

MH:    Yes, it is.

BD:    What about preparing the chorus for recording?  Are there any significant differences from preparing a concert?

MH:    Not really, no.  We were preparing for a performance and recording of Moses and Aaron and I would have been just as pickish about intonation and right notes whether it had been a recording or not.  But I told them, “Look, every choral director in the whole world is going to go to the piano and find out whether we missed any notes.

BD:    Did they miss any notes?

MH:    I don’t think so, but a recording is very different from a concert.

BD:    How so?

MH:    A concert hasn’t yet happened.  With a recording everything happens exactly the same way every time through.  If you have ever heard any of the old recordings of Toscanini broadcasts, when they took place they were enormously exciting.  You play the recording through once and it’s just great.  You play it through again and you find that this tempo changed or the orchestra is scrambling over here and the intonation is a little out, and you become a little disenchanted with it.  Then you play it a third time and you become annoyed.  So there is a certain kind of technical perfection that a recording requires that would be nice if you could get it in a performance.  If I’ve got my choice between technical perfection and musical excellence, I’ll take the musical excellence any day.

BD:    Do recordings then become frauds with the “cut and paste?”

MH:    No, not really.  Just last week I was talking with the engineer who did the editing of our Brahms Requiem that we did with Jimmy Levine from Ravinia, and he was just all excited about meeting me, talking to me and so on.  He said, “I edited that and it was all done on computers!”  I thought, well, it’s still the Chicago Symphony Chorus, it’s still the Chicago Symphony, and it was still Brahms.  That’s what counts.

BD:    There’s no chance, though, that the splicing process edits the life out of the performance?

MH:    If you have a very good editor, that doesn’t happen.  It can, and if you have a bad engineer, boy you’ve got a lot of trouble.  I’ve had a couple of experiences with them turning dials and carrying on, making things softer and making things louder; but usually the engineers work very closely with the conductor.  The conductor says, “I don’t like that; I need more of the double basses,” and they fix it.  Or, “I need more of the horns, or I need more of this. I don’t have enough presence on the sound.”  They’ll adjust the microphones and their dials, and then you get the basic sound set in your recording session which doesn’t change.  They can’t change that with dials when they do the editing.  All they can do is if there is a wrong note, they may be able to find a take where they can find the right note and splice that in, for which we are eternally grateful.

BD:    If one take is so great and yet has a slight imperfection, should they use that take or do they try and fix the mistake?

MH:    That is a very difficult decision to make because you might have another one that is A-One perfect technically, but it doesn’t have that exuberance.  Usually then it’s up to the conductor.  He’ll hear the playbacks and they will ask which one of the takes
to use, and that’s up to him.

BD:    So the conductor is very much involved.

MH:    Oh yes.

BD:     Are you involved also.

MH:    Not unless I am the conductor, in which case then I become involved.  During the course of the recording sessions, I sit back in the booth with the engineer, and if there isn’t enough presence on the chorus, I tell him so.  He’ll say, “Does that work right?” and I’ll say, “That’s almost right.  Can you get a little more without the trumpets bleeding into the microphone?”  He will say, “Yes we can.”  There’s a recording we made fairly recently and the engineers didn’t really know what they were doing.  They couldn’t get enough presence on the chorus, and I said, “Can’t we move the risers back four feet?”  So we did; we moved the risers and the mics back four feet.  The timpani and the brass no longer bled into us, so then we had control over the balance.

BD:    You should hire yourself out as an assistant engineer.

MH:    The engineers are supposed to have good ears.  This one didn’t, but the occasion is very rarely as trying as that.

BD:    But you as the musician would have the best ears.

MH:    Yes, they do defer to the musicians. So in that sense it’s not hard.

BD:    What about working in translation?

MH:    That’s always a problem.

BD:    Is it a solvable problem?

MH:    Not to a hundred per cent, and I always insist that it be two hundred percent right.  From German, it’s not too bad in English because the sounds are very much open from one language to the other.  From French to English it’s almost impossible because French is such a closed language.  From Italian to English it’s also very difficult, but it’s not as difficult as the French.  I once made a translation of The Seasons by Haydn, and it was very easy to do the choral things because the text is repeated.  Once you’ve found a text that worked, it was fine.  The arias were not so bad, but when you got to the recitatives, Haydn says
auf dem Boden and the line goes down to the ground, how are you going to find a two syllable word in English that makes “ground” come to the same place?  Or you go along in a Bach line and he’s talking about death, the word “Tod” in C Major comes on a D-flat, so you have to put “death” on the D-flat.  “Tod” and “death” have different sounds, but the sense of it has to be there.   Then you have to construct the English sentence around it so it leads into that word.  You have to try where ever possible, but the English translations of the Requiem are impossible.  They break the phrase apart and they add some eighth note pick-ups.  Brahms would turn over in his grave at that!

BD:    I’ve not read anything about the choral works, but for their operas, composers want them translated into the language of the people.

MH:    I love to hear a Rossini opera in English.  I get all the jokes.  Even though I understand Italian, I get the jokes better when it’s in English.  There I am in favor of it.  When you have an intensely personal work like the Brahms Requiem, so much of it is the color.  There’s a place toward the opening of the sixth movement where the word “zu
  is pianissimo.  The “oo” vowel is the softest vowel there is and it has a particular color.  Brahms set it in the way that he did because of that color.  In English it comes out as dull because “ee” and “oo” are different colors in their expressive content.  This is a very difficult problem and in works of that kind, I prefer to do in the original.  There are certain other works such as the Hindemith Chansons where there happens to be an excellent English translation.  It works

BD:    So we should keep trying for good English translations?

MH:    Certainly.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:     You mentioned the Brahms Requiem as being such an intimate work. Is there a different expectation on the part of a choral conductor from a concert work to an opera?

hillis MH:    Maybe yes, maybe no.  It depends upon what work you are doing.  Just last week we did the Fauré Requiem which was programmed along with the Haydn Nelson Mass.  The Fauré is a very ethereal kind of work, but it does have moments of very great drama.  You have to keep the ethereal quality, and when the drama comes in it has to have its punch.  Now you think of Beethoven and his relation to God, he was always fighting to get up there on that same level with God.  With Haydn, he was very happy.  God was his best friend, but there are moments of very great drama in that Mass, and you don’t have stage props to show it.  You don’t really have a story line to show it except “et mortuos,” “be fearful of death.”  That has to show in the color.  You don’t get any help from stage props, so to get the drama across on the concert stage it takes much more intensity of projection.  Whether it’s pianissimo or fortissimo, on the opera stage you do have the action, you do have the story, you have the scenery.  But it’s not easy there either; it’s very difficult.  Opera is, in a way, another musical world.  My favorite piece happens to be the Verdi Otello, and all of that joy in the opening is translated to terror and awful things at the end, and it’s all spoken so beautifully in the music.  Musically it has such an integrity that you hardly need the stage, but when you add the stage the piece really reaches its culmination.  But the musical problems are the same, the dramatic problems like in a Missa Solemnis are the same.  It’s just that opera is harder because you have to memorize it.  The Symphony Chorus here learned Moses and Aaron about twelve or fourteen years ago.  They learned it in six weeks, which should go in the Guinness Book of Records, but they didn’t have to roll around in the blood right on the stage.  They didn’t have to memorize it.  Opera is very, very difficult.

BD:    Are there times when you would like to have the chorus throw away their scores to have more concentration?

MH:    They often do.  They don’t throw them away; they just forget to turn pages.

BD:    Is that one of the cues that they’re really into it
when there are no pages turning?

MH:    I rehearse in such a way that I don’t really deliberately encourage memorization, but it does encourage it because it has to be worked in the minds and musical feelings.  Otherwise it’s just a reading of the piece, not a performance.  And by the time they get to the first orchestra rehearsal, it is memorized.

BD:    Is there ever any danger that the piece can get over rehearsed?

MH:    Not with a professional chorus.  You have to be very careful with an amateur chorus.  I love amateur choruses; they’re great and they produce as beautiful a sound as a professional chorus can, but they can’t produce a Missa Solemnis three or four nights in a row because they don’t have vocal stamina.  They don’t sing every day the way professionals do.  They also don’t have the backlog of repertory that most professionals do, and you have to be very careful.  I speak of this because I just worked with a big amateur chorus last week and had a ball with them.  We had a wonderful time.  You have to be very careful that they don’t peak emotionally too soon or the concert itself is going to be a letdown.  With a pro, you can peak them any time you want and the next time they get up to sing it’s got to be better.  When we recorded the Verdi Requiem, they did a spectacular take on the Sanctus, which is a very difficult double chorus.  Leontyne Price was sitting there and said, “Ooooooh boy, great!
  I marched out there and said to them, “Look, there’s only one other chorus in the world that could do it better than you.”  They sort of looked at me shocked, and I said, “It’s you!  There are just a few little things…”  The next take was as near to perfection as any human being can make.

BD:    Did they use that one take without any drop-ins?

MH:    Yeah.  But the thing is we’ll do it Thursday night and the performance will be very good, but before they go on, I’ll say, “Saturday night performance, please.”  Friday night will be better and Saturday night will be the best.  Usually that doesn’t happen with amateurs because they have to run on adrenalin and on excitement.  The pro runs like a great surgeon does on fabulous control, and that’s a different bag.

BD:    You have also worked with the American Opera Society?

MH:    The American Opera Society, the City Center, and Santa Fe.

BD:    But the American Opera Society were concert performances.

MH:    Yes, that’s right.

BD:    Is that at all like preparing concert works for concert use?

MH:    When you do a St. Matthew Passion, that is an opera in a sense that for one little chorus they might be the disciples, for another they might be enemies of Jesus, for others they might be the friends of Jesus.  They take on different characters according to what the composer says, and the thing that you are after is character.  And in this work there are dramatic choruses.  Sometimes they’re mean, sometimes they’re arrogant
—  such as when they’re the priestsand sometimes they’re the disciples, so they’re sweet and lovely.  You have to delineate the character, and you do that with opera choruses as well.

BD:    And then there is the added dimension if you prepare for the stage.

MH:    If you are preparing it for a stage, is first job is to make sure that they know the piece, that they have it memorized.  Then you sit in on all the staging rehearsals.  In the first staging rehearsal they fall apart because they’re busy thinking about this, that and the other thing.  You tell the stage director, “Oh, I expected that.”  You get them back together and do another musical rehearsal and ask them to think about the staging while you are doing the rehearsal to try to get the whole thing as integrated as you can.  But as a choral person in an opera house, you do not have anything to do with the staging.  But you are responsible for seeing to it that they can do both the staging and the singing.  The stage director does his thing and I do my thing, and we coordinate if he is a coordinatable person.  If he’s not, then I find my way around him so that it works.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Is conducting fun?

MH:    Yeah, it’s also hard work, but if anybody else says it’s hard work, you aren’t doing it right.

BD:    When I see the chorus in Orchestra Hall, the tenors are together, the basses are together, the sopranos and the altos.  Is it ever better for them to sit in scrambled seating?

MH:    When we did the B Minor Mass a few years ago with Solti, nearly all the preparatory rehearsals were done scrambled.  It’s a particular kind of contrapuntal writing where that works; they can hear better and can make chamber music better that way, but you can’t control the dynamic of an individual section as well.  It would be like seating a string section in quartets.  There are certain other works where I would never do it in any rehearsals or performance.  For example, in the Brahms Requiem I would never do any kind of rehearsal in quartets because that kind of writing demands a block sound from a given section.  It does demand again a chamber music feeling, but it’s an entirely different stylistic statement from the B Minor Mass.

BD:    Have you ever had a conductor come in and ask for scramble seating?

MH:    No.  I’ve had many conductors come in and say they don’t want it.

BD:    Are the “Do-it-Yourself Messiah” performances particularly fun for you?

MH:    Yes they are.  They’re very hard work with all that turning around. They’re more exercise than I ever got.

BD:    Sure.  The chorus is it all behind you!

MH:    There is no chorus on stage; just the soloists, the orchestra, the harpsichord and the organist.  And it’s all amateur choruses behind me.  This is a very special kind of experience.  You walk on to that hall and there is the joy; it’s just part of the whole thing.  Christmastide has begun or Hanukkah has begun.  We have Arabs, we have Jews, we have Christians of all sects, but it’s all done in great joy and fellowship, and that atmosphere is there before we begin.  They have so much fun, but I have to think while I have fun.

BD:    It’s the joy of participating again for the people who don’t get to it very often.

MH:    That’s right.

BD:    Is there enough work in general for choristers?  Are there enough places for someone who wants to be professional choral singer?

CSO Chorus CD MH:    I wish there were more and I wish that each individual place paid more.  In the Symphony Chorus I have several singers who are wonderful, but they have no ambitions at all at being soloists.  Their life’s ambition is to be able to earn a dignified living singing in a chorus.  At this point there’s been a great change.  I would say right now the choruses are about where orchestras were fifty years ago when there were amateur orchestras all over the place.  There will always be amateur choruses and there should be, but there may be now about forty-five professional choruses, of which only three afford a real living.  It’s difficult to get the public to see the difference between the amateur chorus and the professional chorus, very difficult.  Once they hear them side by side they know the difference, but the pros really deserve more recognition just in terms of the money.  At this point it is so little that they earn that what it stands for, more than anything else, is recognition and appreciation.  I think that’s going to change and I think it is in the process of change right now.  When I started the Symphony Chorus (in 1957), it was totally amateur.  [Photo at right (CD cover) taken in March, 1959, with conductors Fritz Reiner (on podium) and Walter Hendl]  There was no professional standard when it came to vocal ensembles in Chicago at that time.  The problem was to instill in them some sense of responsibility toward what they were doing.  Just to be at rehearsals on time, it took me two years to teach them that.  And then there were certain basic skills that they had to learn.  They finally understood the importance of that and did it finally on their own initiative instead of my screaming at them.  After three years as an amateur chorus, there were some singers who were really good enough to be recognized as professional, so I said to the management, “It’s time.  We have a few.”  And gradually it’s grown up to a hundred five out of a hundred eighty in the chorus.  The rest we do not call amateurs because they’re not; they’re volunteers.  All but about six people in the chorus have at least a Bachelor’s degree in music.  Many of them have Masters and a few have Doctorates.  And they work very hard.  They all study, every one of them.  Now the volunteers are as good as the pros except most of them don’t have the instrument in the throat.  They don’t have the Stradivarius in the throat, but they are musical, they are intelligent, they read very well, and in a way they are the backbone of the chorus.

BD:    Do you purposely make a place for non-professionals in the chorus?

MH:    I have to; I am under obligation to hire a hundred-five.  I wish I could have a hundred-fifty, but there are some volunteers because I don’t have the budget to make more than a hundred-five openings who should be pro.  They sing with me and when a pro drops off along the line, then I ease them into that spot.  But when I first started here in 1957, the only other professional choruses in Chicago were at Rockefeller Chapel and Lyric Opera.   Now there is also Music of the Baroque, and a lot of very good opera companies have sprung up that have professional choruses.  

BD:    Is there a competition amongst choruses?

MH:    There is a competition to get membership sometimes, but my feeling about the whole thing is the more good music there is the better it is for everybody.  I think it’s good for your soul.

BD:    Are you basically pleased with all the recordings that you have made with the various choruses over the years?

MH:    Yes, I am.  A couple of them I think I might be able to do better now, but I won’t name those recordings.  If I didn’t think I could do them better now, I should quit.

BD:    Even the Requiem should be better now that it was ten years ago?

MH:    That’s right.

BD:    Is that a reason to re-record it?

MH:    There are some reasons to re-record.  We’re re-recording the Beethoven Ninth this fall in order to get it on compact disc.  There are certain technical recording processes that have been refined in the last ten to fifteen years, and they want to re-record things with better microphones and better processes.  And that’s all right with me.  I don’t mind.

BD:    Is it better to record where you rehearse or where you perform or in a third location?

MH:    I would rather record where we perform.  We don’t always; it depends upon the recording company.  With DGG, we record in Orchestra Hall.  With London Decca, very rarely in Orchestra Hall.  Usually we’re at Medinah Temple.  Of course that’s a problem because then the chorus may be eighty or ninety feet away from Solti, and that makes for terrible coordination.  But they get the separation in mics.  There are technical problems, too, so you just sort of roll with the punches and do the best you can.

BD:    In the opera house, chorus masters used to have to poke around scenery or cut a hole in the curtain to watch the conductor.  Now there is the little camera in the pit so they can see the conductor on TV backstage.  Does that significantly make it better?

MH:   If it’s right on the conductor, it’s fine.  I should tell you a little story about when we recorded Flying Dutchman.  The chorus was behind Solti up in the balcony at Medinah.  The orchestra was on the stage, so when Solti faced the orchestra, the chorus never could stay with him.  When he faced the chorus, the orchestra could never stay with him.  He was beside himself.  I kept pleading with him to let us use the TV cameras.  They had a camera directly on him and he said, “But they will never see my face.”  I said, “They will see your face much better on TV than they do from way up there.”  Well, that convinced him, so we used the TV.  He just conducted the orchestra and they watched the TV, and it worked.  But the thing was, we had very little time left in the recording session, and he ran all straight through the opera!  His sense of timing is incredible.  It came in ten seconds under the time we had, and I walked out there not knowing whether we had a recording or not.  Before the recording came out, he said, “Well, there were one or two things that your ear and my ear would hear, but nobody else would.”  He said, “it’s really very good.”  I heard the recording and it is fabulous, but it was just that one take.  And they couldn’t insert anything because nothing else was together.  One straight take.  One performance.  That’s the recording.

BD:    That’s a tribute to everyone involved.

MH:    We were thinking hard.

BD:    Does a little bit of tension help the choristers as much as it helps the soloists?

MH:    Oh yes.  And you can feel that in the atmosphere.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Are you glad you are in Chicago and not in New York?

MH:    I miss New York very much.  I have a lot of friends there, and it’s a different feeling from Chicago.

BD:    How so?

MH:    For one thing, it’s terribly inconvenient to live in.  It’s just those thirty-four square miles on that island; everything has to go up.  But there is a sort of cultural mix that is, in a way, more exciting, more hyped than Chicago.  It’s the media center of the nation and it’s just different.  Of course, I’m a Midwesterner; that’s what makes me ultimately very comfortable here.  I miss New York, but if I were in New York, I think that I would miss Chicago more.

hillis BD:    Is there too much hype in music now?

MH:    Yes.

BD:    How can we get rid of it, or am I trying to pull the lion’s tail?

MH:    It’s very difficult because it has become commercial and all this money has to be raised for it.  It’s very difficult to get it turned around, and it’s got to get turned around or all the orchestras are going to be white elephants.  But there has been a certain hype, really, in order to raise money.  It has to be glamorous, and then you make it glamorous and raise all that money, and then it becomes elitist.  Now if you are in the arts, you are already in the elite.  I don’t mind being called elite, but I hate being called an elitist.  I love people and I love to work with people, and I don’t care whether it’s a plumber, a carpenter or a Ph.D.  If they love music, we’ve got the most important thing in common.  But I think we’re trapped a little bit in this elitist thing, and I think some people are turned off.  And I don’t blame them.  The Symphony Chorus is not elitist at all because the members are from everywhere
a garage mechanic to Ph.Ds.  It doesn’t matter.  If a garage mechanic can read and he loves music and he sings well, who cares?  And that, really, is what it is finally all about.

BD:    Is Rock ‘n
Roll music?

MH:    No. It isn’t.  The Beatles were good and Jefferson Airplane was too, but now with all that pounding???  Awful.

BD:    If that isn’t music, and of course choral music and orchestral music is, where is the dividing line?

MH:    The dividing line has to do with invention.  When we come to Rock ‘n’ Roll, a group who is really inventive, who knows, say, Renaissance music, it shows.  But this loud pounding stuff, my God, is worse than anything anyone ever dreamed of.  It happened that when I grew up, show tunes were by Jerome Kern.  I loved that music, and there were certain elitists in the Classical field who thought I was a terrible person for liking it, but I liked it.  I found it very musical.

BD:    What about Jazz?

MH:    Jazz I think is wonderful, but the Rock ‘n’ Roll just by itself is awful because it encourages the youngsters to go into drugs and that whole scene.  I think it’s anti-human.

BD:    How can we get people who are going to Rock concerts to come to symphony concerts?  Or should we try?

MH:    Have my Symphony chorus go out and sing for them; get the orchestra out and play for them.  I don’t know that we can get the prices that we have to charge, but I think that where it starts is in their childhood; the music they hear then.  Although, I have known singers who have come to the symphony chorus and have just become fascinated with classical music at the age of twenty-six or twenty-eight.  That does happen; it’s one of the variables, but you can’t really expect that.  I think that the worst thing is in the public schools.  The taxes went up and up, and the more they went up, the more things got dropped, and the first thing they dropped was music.  The National Endowment now is working very hard to see to it that the Arts, not just music, but painting and so on, will have the same power in the public schools as history and arithmetic.  That should turn it around.  I think a great deal of it has to do with what they are exposed to as children.

BD:    Then are you optimistic about the future of music?

MH:    As long as there is Beethoven and Mozart around, yes.

BD:    Are there any contemporary people that you put with Beethoven and Mozart?

MH:    That’s hard to say.  Somebody else can say that a hundred years from now.

BD:    Thank you for being a conductor.

MH:    Well, it wasn’t my fault.  I was chosen somehow.

BD:    This is how you want to be known
as a conductor, not a chorus master?

MH:    Yes. I hope I am.

BD:    Thank you for spending the time today sharing your insights and experience.

MH:    You’re welcome.

Margaret Hillis, 76, Conductor
Led Chicago Symphony Chorus

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.''

Photos:  (Portrait with baton, with Rorem, and CD Cover) Chicago Symphony Orchestra; (Conducting and younger portrait) Northwestern University Archives

© 1986 Bruce Duffie

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.