One of Fritz Reiner‘s primary goals early in his tenure as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s sixth music director was to schedule and perform major choral works. However, the repertory he wished to perform was, in his opinion, too demanding for the amateur groups usually engaged. Reiner sought out Margaret Hillis—then founder and director of the New York Concert Choir—and convinced her to come to Chicago to start a chorus on a par with the Orchestra.
On March 13 and 14, 1958, the Chicago Symphony Chorus made its official debut in Mozart’s Requiem. Bruno Walter conducted and the soloists were Maria Stader, Maureen Forrester, David Lloyd, and Otto Edelmann. In the Chicago Tribune, Claudia Cassidy wrote: “It was a wonderfully strong performance Mr. Walter gave us, deploying his forces with a direct, powerful simplicity of style. In the Mozart Requiem, the chorus is the focal point, the orchestra and soloists of the highest quality are taken for granted. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is in high estate, with the kind of clairvoyance that gives a conductor what he wants in sound. . . . The evening’s card up the Mozartean sleeve was the new Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chorus of about 100 voices, expertly chosen and admirably trained by Margaret Hillis. It had balance and hints of brilliance, it was adroit in attack and it had moments of reassuringly imaginative song. The Confutatis in particular caught the haunted terror that was Mozart’s when the mysterious commission for the Requiem convinced him that the death knell he wrote was his own.”
Less than a month later, on April 3, 4, and 8, 1958, the Chorus appeared in Verdi’s Requiem with Reiner conducting. The soloists included Leonie Rysanek, Regina Resnik, David Lloyd, and Giorgio Tozzi. In the Chicago Sun-Times, Robert C. Marsh wrote that “Miss Hillis’s chorus proved its virtues earlier this season. Again its excellent enunciation, reliable intonation, and intelligent response were praiseworthy.” The following season, Hillis led the Orchestra and Chorus in Honegger’s Christmas Cantata on December 26 and 27, 1958, becoming the first woman to conduct subscription concerts.
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