Paul Hill turned in his baton after the Christmas Candlelight Concert in December 1995. It was the beginning of the end of an era.
That year marked my fifth with the chorale that until this season bore his name. We gave an encore performance of Z. Randall Stroope's "Hodie!" By that point, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease, had robbed Hill of the use of his arms, so he used his head--literally--to conduct us. Having performed the cantata and recorded it the year before meant we were familiar enough with it to get by without intricate baton movements.
All of us in the chorus held it together that final night, until violinist Elisabeth Adkins and organist Sondra Proctor played J.S. Bach's Air. We surrounded the audience in the darkened Kennedy Center Concert Hall to sing our last three carols by candlelight. In the dark, Hill turned over his baton to the assistant conductor, Donald Richardson. The tears began with the sopranos, moved to the basses and then to the conductor and founder himself.
"I choose not to write to you my feelings about the personal significance of these particular concerts," he told us in a letter dated Dec. 27, 1995. "Suffice it to say that I do not like the prospect of not conducting any more Christmas Concerts. However, we learned, or should have learned when we were very young that when the gifts are all opened there simply aren't anymore . . . we must enjoy fully the gifts we were given, and that is precisely what I intend to do."
Paul Hill, who led 180 singers in a chorus that bore his name for 31 years and conducted thousands more in annual "Messiah" sing-alongs at the Kennedy Center from 1973 to 1993, died earlier this week at his home in Potomac. He was 65.
What makes people want to give up their free time and spend money to sing without pay? Why would they want to take a good portion of a sunny Saturday plowing through music composed hundreds of years ago or just last year? Who would simply give up most of December to sing holiday music when there's so much to be done before Dec. 25?
Paul Hill inspired us.
My audition in 1990 was nerve-racking. "If I were to use a color to describe your voice, yours would be purple," he told me. Translation: My dark and heavy voice worked for the gospel music and spirituals I had been singing for years but it wasn't right for pianissimo passages in early-music pieces.
I quickly learned to blend my voice with 179 others.
Hill was a stickler for making a room full of singers sound as one. That was hard for some singers who may have been Metropolitan Opera semifinalists to take--they didn't stick around.
Re-auditions were equally demanding. One year each section auditioned as a group, with individuals standing up and singing in front of Hill. One soprano was so rattled, she simply told him, "I'm sorry, Paul, you just unnerve me." Her membership was renewed.
Even after Hill was disabled, he came to our Kennedy Center concerts and visited our Monday night rehearsals. He also sent the chorale e-mail updates. In one letter written last year, Hill let us in on his sense of mortality while also expressing his eternal optimism. It had been five years since he was diagnosed with ALS. He wrote: "I'm in my fifth year and I fully expect to be one of the exceptions!"
Now the chorale bears a new name, the Master Chorale of Washington, and with Donald McCullough is in capable hands. And as Hill himself told us in a different letter: "Am I so jealous of Don that I'd like to set the choir-monsters on him right before each concert? . . . Yes . . . Am I happy with the way the transition went? You bet I am!"
CAPTION: Paul Hill in 1996, a few months after his last concert with the chorale.