Sir Georg Solti had programmed Mahler’s Eighth Symphony for the fall of 1977, with three performances in Chicago followed by one at Carnegie Hall. After the first two concerts at Orchestra Hall, early on Saturday, October 29, Sir Georg sprained his right wrist and pulled several muscles in his back, neck, and shoulders when he tripped while exiting an elevator. Chorus director Margaret Hillis arrived at Orchestra Hall later that afternoon and was asked by general manager John Edwards and artistic administrator Peter Jonas to conduct that evening’s performance with less than three hours’ notice; she respectfully declined. Edwards then asked Hillis to lead Monday evening’s performance at Carnegie Hall, and she accepted. The Saturday Chicago concert was canceled.
On Sunday afternoon, Hillis visited Solti in the hospital to discuss details of the symphony and continued analyzing the score on the plane to New York that evening. On Monday, October 31, with no opportunity to rehearse with the Orchestra and soloists and little more than an hour with the Chorus, she was quoted as saying, “Look, don’t try to help me do my job. Your job is to sing and play, mine is to keep the whole shooting match together.” She returned to her hotel room for about ninety minutes of more study and then an hour’s rest before the concert.
When Julius Bloom, director of Carnegie Hall, announced from the stage that Solti would not be conducting that evening’s concert, the audience was clearly disappointed by the news. But on Tuesday, Miss Hillis’s triumph was front-page news in The New York Times. Donal Henahan wrote: “Miss Hillis built her performance carefully, but she built it well. What her Mahler Eighth sometimes lacked in ‘Soltian’ fire and tension, it made up for in poise, clarity, and ethereal detail. By the last ecstatic pages she had her forces working for her and Mahler with a burning enthusiasm that radiated a fine glow over the Faustian finale.”
Image above: The New York Times, November 1, 1977 (see below for the complete article)
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