Margaret Hillis, the founder and director laureate of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, died Wednesday just a few weeks before the 200-member group, the first American professional symphony chorus, was to celebrate its 40th anniversary. Hillis, who was 76 years old, died at Evanston Hospital of complications of lung cancer. A lifelong smoker, Hillis had recently undergone lung surgery.
Recruited in New York in 1957 by then-Orchestra director Fritz Reiner, Hillis went on to put together a group that came to be recognized as one of the world's great choral organizations, performing national and foreign tours, and winning nine Grammy awards, more than any comparable US group. Hillis led the chorus nearly 600 times, and in 45 recordings before handing over the reins in 1994 to Duain Wolfe.
Born in Kokomo, IN in 1921, she learned to play the piano, trumpet, horn, saxophone and string bass. Hillis studied at Indiana University, Julliard, and with another of America's choral innovators, Robert Shaw. By the age of 8, she knew what she wanted to be -- an orchestral conductor -- but, since the field was entirely male at the time -- she was advised (not entirely tactfully) to try her hand at choral conducting. Eventually, she did get to conduct some major orchestras, if only by accident. At a 1977 Carnegie Hall concert when Sir Georg Solti (the scheduled conductor) became ill, Hillis stepped in to lead Mahler's gigantic Eighth Symphony, and received a standing ovation.
She has also conducted with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Milwaukee Symphony, the National Symphony, Baltimore Symphony, as well as the Civic Orchestra of Chicago and the Kenosha and Elgin Symphonies, and has been choral director of the Cleveland and San Francisco orchestras. For many years, she led Orchestra Hall's popular "Do-It-Yourself Messiah."
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