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Conversation with Margaret Hillis. This is another in a continuing series of programs each of which offers the listener a rare opportunity to hear an eminent musician informally discussing his own career and expressing his thoughts about a variety of topics related to the art of music. The regular participants in these discussions are Aaron the parsons professor of music theory at Northwestern University's School of Music and program annotator for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. And George Stone program director for Zenith radio corporation's serious music station WEAA FM in Chicago. Mr. Parsons and Mr. Stone have as their guest on today's program the founder and conductor of the Chicago Symphony Chorus. Miss Margaret Hillis now addressing Miss Hillis. Here is Aaron Parsons. Tell us as a professional choral conductor you occupy a unique position in the musical life of this country.
I would like to know when your musical interest turned to conducting these things I think happened rather slowly. I remember the first time that I became involved in an ensemble. Sound was strangely enough the Sousa band came to my little hometown of Kokomo Indiana and I was just completely taken in by this marvelous sound. Then when I was about 11 I'd been studying piano since I was about five. For the first time I played a Mozart sonata. And I began to understand shape and phrasing and such. And I knew then that I was a musician that there was nothing else for me. Then the following year I was taken to a symphony concert for the first time and as I remember the Tchaikovsky fourth was one of the pieces and I was just transported and I though the sound is so so marvelous. And I think probably the first attraction was when I was very small my grandmother was an
organist. She had an organ in her home and the pipes were under a large grow work that was on the floor. And I'm told that when I was about six months old I would crawl out on that grow work and sit there and conduct in the middle of it as this is. She had an electrical attachment like the old player piano was and I kept demanding the William Tell Overture. And from a professional point of view a little beyond this beginning musical training you took seriously to conducting say. And while you were still at the University of Indiana. Yes well as a matter of fact when I was in high school I think the director of the band in the orchestra there gave in more in self-defense than anything else and allowed me to be the student conductor and I did my first conducting. I would think I was 14 years old as a freshman in high school. Then when I was in college there was no degree offered in conducting at that time. And I started as a piano major and there were certain courses in counterpoint if you'd been
so on that I couldn't get on that course. So I made a petition to the faculty and they allowed me to shift to a composition major and graduated in composition from Indiana University. Out of Indiana you went to Juilliard. Yes as a matter of fact at Indiana I was a student at Sanders who was a Chicago person and then Bernard Haydn who was an intimate student. Bernard Haydn very much wanted me to go to Yale and studied with Hindemith who was then there and I said but I'm not really a composer and he said Oh yes you are. And I said no conducting it is and he came to a concert that I conducted that spring and he came backstage afterwards and said yes you're right you are a conductor and he advised me at that point I was interested mainly in the orchestra and I played string bass and been the principal string bass player in the college orchestra. And he said You go into choral work he said as a woman. The competition is going
to be much too difficult in the professional field as an orchestral conductor. And actually that that concert was the first time I'd ever conducted chorus as an instrumentalist I didn't look upon a chorus as being a valid musical instrument and I tumbled into this just by chance because somebody else it had been able to handle the rehearsals and so on and I said Look I know nothing about the voice I know something about music and I know something about conducting and I'll try and it doesn't work we'll find somebody else who's a signoff eode a contemporary American program. And I tried and I found out to my utter surprise that a chorus can make music. And I've been proving that but you know this this point is a very interesting one. Women have mocked traditionally. Functioning as conductors and there seems to be no good reason why one wonders why but did you encounter any real resistance to pursuing a career as a conductor.
Not really it's more difficult for a woman and that there are certain attitudes against it not from the musicians. I've never had difficulty with an orchestra that I've gotten up in front of beyond just the normal difficulty that anyone has you know you step on the podium everybody looks at you. Who do they think they are to tell me what is do you know. And after about three or four minutes it all attitude is gone and your colleagues and your musicians are working together. It's usually on the part of boards they don't think that a woman can be a boss and they don't realize that in a sense a conductor is not so much a boss as a colleague and somebody who's making music with other people. And if the musicality is there then it's accepted and if it is not there it won't be accepted man woman or man from Mars and doesn't make any difference to some. Describe the role of the conductor as a teacher. Yet the attitude on this course of music making ultimately is what is the end. That's right but there is a point where the teaching role is I believe the significance
of the teaching role I think is the most important role as a conductor whether one is working with an artist or are with a chorus. You know often pianists say well you know conductors don't need a technique while there is a certain amount of physical technique that is involved but it's not as complicated or as a lot of what I want to say as as highly developed skill is not of a pianist for instance just the stick technique. It must be there but you don't have to practice it as much. But there is another technique and that has to do with the dealing with musical materials. And in this sense the conductor has to be the teacher in relation to the orchestra in relation to the chorus. He doesn't tell them what fingering to you is or even for instance in the Symphony Chorus. I never tell them how to sing but. Make it obvious how a phrase is shaped and dealing with the materials themselves. And a conductor on a
podium in front of an arc a stroke deals with balances of sonority as well as the musical materials and it's often very hard to split these things apart because they're all one thing finally. But you remind them to remember one time seeing Reiner on the podium was preparing the veritie Requiem for bassoons came in and they sort of glum through round and not quite together. And he stomped his feet and he said Gentlemen I am very impatient. He said take care of this and the next time was perfect. The next rehearsal these donkeys feet again at the hole when S. is a gentleman I am very impatient. Listen and take care of the balances and they listen in the balances were marvelous. You know you can you come to conduct in choral conducting and through an instrumental experience that is you are going to be a pianist you played string bass in the Indiana University orchestra. How is it that you
apparently have not studied voice and yet you are working with. Wes I've had some voice training. I was never interested in being a singer. When I was a child my mother used to bring me into Chicago and we get seats on the front row at the opera house and I would sit there with a score open. And I remember listening with my mouth wide open you know I'd look first down into the pit and I'd look up the stage and Flagstaff was the person I most often heard and whom I worshiped. And I adored this just beauty of sound and the way she shaped the sound and the attraction really was not to instrument. It was to sonority and to the shaping of sound. And if a vocal instrument made a shape sound and made something that was beautiful then it was just as beautiful in my ear Is it as it's playing one thing which is come up so frequently in the course of these conversations with various conductors.
Two things actually in speaking of successful music making are breathing and singing. Now generally I think almost universally in the case I'm speaking of this has been referred to in the instrumental context. It seems to me that you're in a unique position as an instrumental conductor music director of commissions and for me to apply these principles because they are if you're a regular what shall I say moment you have operation. Well you know of course I'm very unfair in that respect because to the orchestra I always say sayings especially the string section and to the chorus I always say articulate. Because you know with the with instrumentalists for instance for a hospice to play a note exactly with the pianist takes a different kind of physical motion and it's very difficult to get ensemble between these two instruments for an
oboe to make a phrase shape or to make a rhythm short note the same as if it's a kata for instance in the strings. He has to in a sense cheat because this is not the natural thing for an oboe to do. They string players sometimes have to cheat and do things that are unnatural to the instrument in a sense. The chorus also particularly when it's singing with an art history has to cheat. And we use diction a great deal to make it articulate the way brass would or like a snare drum. And in the chorus of course I have to tell them now and then for him sakes take a breath because they'll maybe toward the end of a rehearsal they're a little tired or at the beginning of the rehearsal they've not really gotten wound up. And with a chorus too. I have to say aloud the phrase to Bree's don't be in such a hurry don't be tense about it. More brats and more breath but it's the musical demand finally that governs what one does.
Technique I suppose does exist but it exists only as a as a servant of an idea. Too often I think people become preoccupied with technical problems and they forget that after all one is a musician and not just Surely an athlete. The problem of shape has a great deal to do with normal breathing in your preparation of a stool or do you. Final essentially the same pattern in preparing a Coral's score as an instrumental score in your study. In my own study yes. Whether it's a capella course every score will vary in its demands and it takes an enormous amount of experience working with a great variety of compositions to find your way. If one picks up a box score one goes at
finding out what the piece is about a little bit differently than one does with a Beethoven score. It's all music but it's built a little bit differently the rhythmic principles will be a little different and the articulations will come out a little differently. The problem of rhythm is is the great problem for for all musicians it's such terribly subtle kind of thing. Singers and instrumentalists alike. Yes and by rhythm I don't mean meter meter is already a problem it's that's I think you could call a technical problem but rhythm that lies in. Not only the length of notes but relative weight whether it's an accented or slightly stressed rhythm in terms of. And then it it overlaps into articulation staccato. How long is a staccato note there was a student once who went into Schnabel and he played a piece and samples a bit.
Why is it so dry and he said well it's Mark staccato and Schnabel said there are at least 57 varieties and you're playing the first right he should be playing the 56. And this has to do with a melodic and rhythmic shape of a phrase of articulation. It's a kind of musical nuance. Yes it's so difficult. You know when one talks about uses a term like phrase for instance from the standpoint of a performer that usually means shaping. And I usually try to use the term either shape it or articulate it because if a composer uses the term phrase it it's something quite different. And it has to do with the organization of the material rather than in the actual shaping of it in sound. And often you hear musicians say Please phrase it what he really means is some shape. Because really what
music is essentially a shape sound sound is a material you work with just like oil and canvas or the materials that a an artist painter works with. He works with design although this design begins to get into the imaginative area and begins to get into the shape of what he does is design and shape these materials. And the musician takes the sound and shapes it according to the blueprint that is given to him and what he finds from this very inexact notation that we have. He makes a shape with the sound. Miss Elizabeth I would be interested to hear about how you happened to come to Chicago now I know that Dr. Reiner who was the music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra brought you here. But tell us how this came about. Well I'll leave the chorus a name but there was a chorus that was
engaged to do it farms for the Chicago Symphony and somebody made quite a mistake. They scheduled a rehearsal for Reiner at piano rehearsal when the chorus was not available. And at the last minute there were telegram sent out phone calls made and they managed to get a little less than half the chorus present for the piano rehearsal. REINER came and he just cancelled that performance and substituted something else and came stomping into New York and said I need a professional chorus that is reliable. So my manager heard about this and told me that Reiner would like to come down and hear a rehearsal. I said fine and he said he also wants a repertory list of what's been done with this car as I said which was was that this was this is the American concert choir in New York City. And as it happened he and Mr Kuyper who was then the manager of the Chicago Symphony miscalculated on the traffic so they arrived a little late and I was
already in rehearsal and I'd been told they just want to listen to a rehearsal. So I just went on her sing way do we care and he nodded and went over and sat down and then I stopped to say something in the chorus and he got up and he said How do you do and I said how you do and he said How do you do the chorus and they said how do you do in unison. And he said Do you have to be very direct with him and I thought of the more you know of this is that this is an audition. He expects. So I said no we don't have enough copies to go around. And right away knew that he had been given my repertory list and not the repertory that had been done by this chorus for the last two or three years and then he asked for the music solemnised you know not enough copies to go around. And then he said Do you have. And I said the Mozart Requiem. You know in the back when you got Do you have the B Minor Mass and we hadn't done it for quite a while and there'd been some change in personnel. And I looked around the room and there were maybe there were 44.
Singers for that particular concert and I knew that eight of them again up with me before and there were four others that I guessed it probably don't know who was shot and maybe there were another four who might have seen it but I thought to myself while the rest of the reading I said yes we have plenty of copies to go around. Which movie would you like. And he said the first period. So we started and it was just marvelous they were right on their toes and sang beautifully. And when we got close to the final canes I saw his hand begin to move and I realized I'd hit a temple that he felt was a very good temple. So out of the crime I had followed his return to the sort of thing to do. And with all this collusion was going on in the room anyhow. So then he got up and he said thank you very much you will hear from me and I saw him to the door and he turned he says Tell me do they sight read. I said oh yes they read really very well. And he laughed a little being.
That polite as well the rehearsal just fell apart you know and then I did ask how many had done it. And out of the 44 18 ad and everybody else was reading and they read beautifully. And some of them hadn't even heard the word before which is amazing for. A group of people of this kind. Then for two years in a row this chorus came out to Chicago for an appearance with the Chicago Symphony and we had 60 members I think the first time we did the prayers occurred guard of Samuel Barber and the common Oberon and the second year it was the Mozart C Minor Mass in the book are today. And then the third theory led to the very direct way in which I would not do with Sixty Voices and American concert choir was a we had a core group of around 40 that did every concert and there were other extra singers that we could add for special large chorus. Things in
New York I had made a niche for myself. Doing things like the black man you got and a lot of work that required a chorus of around 40 that avoided that being a big symphonic repertory and things that would be unlikely to be performed by The New York Philharmonic or the visiting Boston or Philadelphia and also incidentally were a little bit more within the economic grasp of the organization. And these were works that could not normally be heard in a concert hall but I could expand it up to about 150 singers and sometimes I would have three or four different choruses going at the same time singing with the American opera society and the little orchestra society. I remember one week I had eight choruses the Profund with separate works within 10 days and one day. That was shortly after this started out here one day somebody said well we're going to find
out about your loyalties now. You know you have a crew singing the Trojans the Berlioz under Beecham down in Washington. And then you have another group that's sort of singing in town hall under Stravinsky which place you're going to be. And I said neither I'd be out in Chicago doing a sectional Mirza with my tenors who were sort of. But getting back to the Symphony Chorus The following year he wanted to do the verity and I wanted one hundred twenty four ices and of course the round trip transportation all the rehearsal costs. So on had to be paid by the Chicago Symphony and I said look it's so enormously expensive it doesn't really make sense. So he finally put it off that year. Well the following year he wanted to get him to do it and George Kiper called me and he asked me to quote a fee and I quoted it and there was this gasp on the other end of the line as I knew there would be a
and he was thinking within about $2000 of what this cost was and I said if you're thinking in terms of that much money put it in Chicago. Don't let it go outside the city because I know many Chicago musicians who complain about the fact that there just is not enough in Chicago that the Chicago musician can participate in for his own growth and for his own challenge. Well that was an idea. Well I knew it was going to happen so I went down to a hotel not far from where I live and got out the Chicago telephone directory the yellow pages and looked through and got an idea of churches and synagogues and all this sort of thing and then I went home and got out a map and spotted all the communities within about a 50 mile radius of Chicago and when the phone rang the next morning I was prepared because the first question you know this boy says I got it and I said yes he's all right. As if I didn't know what he said.
I BETTER BE got the singers well than I said it has to be planned out very carefully. First you decide that the repertory when the first performance will be then we go back from that and decide when the first rehearsal has to be we go back from that and decide when the first audition has to be and the announcements have to be made through the newspapers and by notices to the local chambers of commerce and so I went through the whole list. He said that's fine to get the singers who conducts. I suppose I'm sure that somebody can be found I said I would be happy you cannot Chicago and help you look around there for something you don't have a place you conduct. Well this had not occurred to me. And yes it will have to think that when I call you back tomorrow. I looked into my date book and I found out that with my teaching and performing schedule in New York City that I could come out every Sunday night except for during the course of the year and stayed through Monday doing Monday night were some catch a midnight plane back to New York. I did that for five and a half years.
Every week every week there I commuted between New York and Chicago and that was how the chorus got started. I find it very apparent when you speak of Dr. Reiner that you enjoyed this collaboration. I did very much I felt toward him as if he were a very indulgent grandfather. Plus having an enormous respect for him as a musician and as I think everybody had for him. And he was kindly as a matter of fact when I first started the chorus before I started it. I said look I will not take the job unless you understand that it's going to take at least three maybe five years before this chorus is going to be worthy of the Chicago Symphony. Because it takes time for these disciplines to be laid down and for certain things to be gotten out of the way so that you can really work primarily with musical materials not with learning to count or to subdivide. There is for the techniques to come and I have to admit the existence.
But to get it to a point where it is mature enough that there are certain things that it will take in its stride. And I said it will take three to five years and you must accept that. I don't expect miracles. And he said no he understood because he said I have built orchestras I know how much time this takes for the disciplines to be laid down. I said Well with a chorus takes a little more time because we don't get as many performances and there's no better discipline for soloists or any ensemble group than actual performance. If the groundwork has been properly Laden rehearsals of course you know how large is the Chicago Symphony Chorus now misnomers you've been working with this now about 10 years and yes this is our 10th year. We just finished. Why always have to calculate the angles in a way because the car is. We carry 50 to 55 professional members who are members of ag not the rest of the chorus are
so-called amateurs. Actually the professionals are amateurs in the sense of the real spirit of the word the word which means a lover of of the art but because of factors of jobs changing and these people are of an age for they're likely to move out of the city out. I have some members who have spent two years in this chorus and in two years in the Cleveland Orchestra chorus and have come back here for two years and two years more back there and we now have ex members all over the United States from coast to coast north south and in the fall. I usually shoot for around a roster of around a hundred eighty because I know that. An audition who's been accepted is going to go home with say a tenner and he discusses the schedule with his wife and she says I just don't see how you can do it dear. And he won't
show up for the first rehearsal he'll call in or send a note and say I'm sorry but I can't carry that schedule. We give them the schedule of the least the first four months and they come in for the audition so that they have a realistic basis to budget their time and there will be about 5 percent who never make first rehearsal. Then another 5 percent will lose within the first two weeks because it's a little bit more gradual sinking in the amount of time that is required than before we get to the first concert. Another 5 percent will finally realize when that last performance week is coming upon them that they can't get away from jobs early enough to make the orchestra rehearsals. 4:30 It's 7:00 in the afternoon that they would prejudice too many other things in their lives so we lose 15 percent by the first concert. Then after that the roster will remain quite stable unless you know somebody moves out of town. Except that at certain times of the year these
people who are the most active singers in the musical community around Christmas Around Easter and so on. Extra things will come into play and they will have to go on a leave of absence. Now we have about 160 on the active roster. Here we are in May. Several of them are school teachers they have activities at their schools that are coming up and this is their job that now has to be the primary on commitment. So we're sending one hundred forty nine on for the missing on this which is about right for the slimness. And if we're doing a varity Requiem in the solemnest something of this kind I have to make sure that the smallest roster is going to be between one hundred forty five hundred fifty when we get to that concert. If it's a year that we're not doing one of the big works we're doing say Mozart Requiem a B Minor Mass something that doesn't need the big mast sound I can afford to take fewer people from year to year you have a nucleus of singers who returned. Yes as a matter of
fact the turnover once that roster has settled out the the turnover is not large. I would be interested to in the number of major orchestras in the country who have this kind of affiliation live a chorus which is built into the organization.
A conversation with
Episode Number
#13 (Reel 1)
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University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
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Identifier: 69-12-13 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
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