Margaret Hillis

Growing up in Kokomo, Indiana Margaret Hillis (1921-1998) wanted to become an orchestra conductor. Alas, there were no orchestral conducting opportunities for women when Hillis came of age. But it was “acceptable” for women to direct choruses. Hillis explained, “I learned to take a strong disadvantage and turn it to my advantage.” After earning her undergraduate degree, she studied choral conducting at Juilliard with Robert Shaw. Her reputation grew in NYC where she directed opera company choruses and taught choral conducting. Fritz Reiner,  conductor of the Chicago Symphony, invited Hillis to form a chorus for his orchestra. She accepted and the Chicago Symphony Chorus debuted in March 1958. During her 37 year tenure as director of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, Hillis received nine Grammy awards.

Hillis’ dream of becoming an orchestra director came true when she became the conductor of the Chicago Civic Orchestra. She appeared as guest conductor of many US orchestras and was the first woman to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Why this stop? Symphony Center, home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus is a block away from the Adams/Wabash (serving the Green, Pink, Orange, Purple and Brown Lines).

In 1976, Hillis was asked to conduct the first US Do-It-Yourself Messiah with over 2,000 amateur singers and an amateur orchestra. (What could go wrong?!) She agreed and the event became a beloved annual event. Watch a video about Hillis and the Do-It-Yourself Messiah.

Discuss“I learned to take a strong disadvantage and turn it to my advantage.” Can you relate? Get together with one or two others and discuss how you have done this in the past OR how you might do this in the present.