Born: 1921 - Kokomo, Indiana, USA
Died: February 6, 1998 - Chicago, Illinois, USA
The American choral conductor, Margaret Hillis, learned to play the piano, trumpet, horn, saxophone and string bass. She studied at Indiana University, Juilliard, and with another of America's choral innovators, Robert Shaw.
By the age of 8, Margaret Hillis 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, she stepped in to lead Gustav Mahler's gigantic Eighth Symphony, and received a standing ovation. She was the first woman to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. She has also conducted with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Milwaukee Symphony, 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 Orchestra and San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. For many years, she led Orchestra Hall's popular "Do-It-Yourself Messiah."
Recruited in New York in 1957 by then-Orchestra director Fritz Reiner, Margaret Hillis went on to put together the Chicago Symphony Chorus, the first American professional symphony chorus. For 37 years she was director laureate of this group, which 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 USA group. She led the Chicago Symphony Chorus nearly 600 times, and in 45 recordings before handing over the reins in 1994 to Duain Wolfe.
Margaret Hillis died in 1998, just a few weeks before the 200-member Chicago 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, she had recently undergone lung surgery.