While a student at the University of Chicago Laboratory School, ten-year old Margaret Harris won a youth audition and the opportunity to perform with the Orchestra on Young People’s Concerts. On November 17 and December 1, 1953, she was soloist in a movement from Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 20 in D minor with associate conductor George Schick. Shortly thereafter, Harris won a scholarship to the Curtis Institute, and by the age of twelve she was a student at the Juilliard School, where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees. In 1970, she took over the reins of the Broadway musical Hair, conducting the seven-piece orchestra (all male, all older) from the keyboard.
During the summer of 1971, Harris became the first African American woman to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, leading three Symphony in the Streets concerts—free outdoor concerts presented in cooperation with the Illinois Arts Council—on July 26 near the village hall in Maywood, on August 1 in Lincoln Park, and on August 6 on the grounds of the First Lutheran Church in Harvey. She led works by Borodin, Granados, Prokofiev, Sibelius, Smetana, Wagner, and a suite from Galt MacDermot’s score for Hair.
Harris “thoroughly earned her assignment by her own talents,” wrote Bernard Jacobson in the Chicago Daily News following the concert in Maywood. “Her work showed a cool competence that was particularly impressive in view of her limited symphonic experience.” The reviewer praised “the sense of spontaneous musicality she conveys. ‘Let the Sunshine In,’ the final number from Hair urges; and that is exactly what Margaret Harris did.”
Image above: Margaret Harris leads the Orchestra in Maywood on July 26, 1971 (Robert M. Lightfoot III photo)
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