Paul Rush Hill

 1934 - 1999

When Paul Hill, nationally noted choral conductor, died September 27, 1999, he was hailed as one who had been a central figure in making Washington, D.C. one of the nation's premier centers for choral music. His death was noted in two nationally known newspapers, The New York Times and The Washington Post, with a photograph and an extended obituary.

Paul was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on November 2, 1933, the youngest of four children of Benjamin Rush and Irene Pearl Smith Hill. He and his brother Melvin were musically talented and in high school were brass players, Paul being a prize-winning trombonist while at Newbury Park Academy; a soloist with the La Sierra College, now University, concert band; and a tuba player who marched in a Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California.


Following graduation from NPA in 1952 he attended and graduated from La Sierra College, now University, in 1956. While at LSC he married Merrilyn Irene White on June 8, 1955.  They would have four children, Kathleen, Karen, Roger, and Randall.


He began his career as the band conductor at Loma Linda Academy. However, when the choir director left during his first school year and Hill was asked to lead the choir, he found working with the sound of the human voice so intriguing and satisfying he switched from instrumental to choral teaching. In the next three years, he established The Lolinians, a select choir of 24 voices that performed at an exceptional level. He also completed an M.A. in conducting and church music at the University of Southern California, and sang in the nationally known Roger Wagner Chorale during this time. 


The quality of his work led to a position at Southwestern Junior College, now Southwestern Adventist University, in 1960, where, in the next two years, his work with its Mizpah Choraliers elicited highest praise and an invitation to teach at Columbia Union College in 1962. In his first year at CUC, Hill created Pro Musica, a select choral ensemble, from the larger college choir and established a sound and performance level in both groups during the next eight years that attracted gifted singers.


He developed disciplined groups in which every musical detail was important and instilled a drive in the singers that led to an exquisite and balanced choral sound - and an appearance in Carnegie Hall in 1967 in New York City, plus performances with the Philadelphia Orchestra and National Symphony on an ongoing basis.  While the singing was enjoyed and praised by those who listened, the students learned important lessons about life that profoundly affected them as they left his groups, lived their lives, and in many instances, sang as soloists or served as leaders in music at schools and churches.


During his time at CUC, Hill began to guest conduct choirs at SDA and other music festivals. This activity and the guest conducting of many noted orchestras and choirs, including the Roger Wagner Chorale, increased as he became known for his ability to create inspiring performances and experiences for participants. In 1970 he organized and directed a choir for the General Conference Session held in Atlantic City and in that same year left his position at CUC, wanting to devote more time to an off-campus choral group, the Paul Hill Chorale, which he had established in 1967.


The chorale was a semi-professional ensemble, formed to provide a meaningful outlet for his students after they graduated. In 1969, when a choir scheduled to perform with the National Symphony was suddenly unavailable, Hill was contacted to help.  He immediately added 44 more singers to his 36-member ensemble to provide a large enough chorus and in two weeks prepared them to join with the orchestra in a performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio.


The success of the group on this occasion and in an earlier performance of J.S. Bach’s motet “Jesu meine Freude,” at the National Cathedral, along with other appearances led to an invitation for them to sing at the opening ceremonies of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 1971. This would be the beginning of a relationship with JFK Center during the next 25 years in which the chorale and related ensembles under his direction would perform there nearly two hundred times.


Beginning in 1973 he became the conductor/coordinator of the Kennedy Center’s annual “Messiah Sing-along” concerts which continued for the next twenty years. In that same year and continuing through 1976, when the nation celebrated its Bicentennial, Hill presented programs of American choral music there and in 27 states that were enthusiastically praised by reviewers in NewsweekTime, and the New York Times.


His musical direction of a public television production of Gian Carlo Menotti's opera The Old Maid and the Thief received excellent reviews and Hill and the chorale received an Emmy Award in 1978 for their work in a nationally televised performance of Menotti's The Unicorn, the Gorgon, and the Manticore. He conducted performances of Scott Joplin's Treemonisha at Wolf Trapp and prepared choruses there for performances with the Duke Ellington Orchestra and the National Symphony.


Hill also formed The Washington Singers, a professional chamber choir as a companion ensemble to the chorale, in 1980. It performed in the White House and at Lincoln Center in New York City, and toured in five countries in Europe where they sang in famous venues such as Notre Dame de Paris and the Cathedral of Chartres in France and the San Marco Cathedral in Italy. During these years Hill also taught voice and conducted choirs at Georgetown University, the University of Maryland, and in the summers at Peabody Conservatory of Music.


He returned to conduct the choir at CUC part-time in 1992, relishing the chance to work once again at the school where he had experienced some of the most satisfying years in his career. Tragically, a debilitating illness, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gerhig's Disease), would end his leadership of the group there in 1994.


Though severely incapacitated and unable to communicate verbally, he continued to conduct his other choral groups for another year, in the end conducting only with his eyes and through motions with his head. He made his final appearance as conductor of the chorale at the Annual Christmas Candlelight Concert given in Kennedy Center and attended by President William Clinton and his family in December 1995. Following what had been a profoundly moving ending of the program, with tears flowing freely as the choir sang carols by candlelight in the darkened hall, Hill wrote the following to them:


Suffice it to say that I do not like the prospect of not conducting any more Christmas concerts. However, we have learned, or should have learned when we were very young, that when gifts are all opened there simply aren't any more . . . we must fully enjoy the gifts we were given, and that is precisely what I intend to do.


Hailed by critics for the excellence of his choral work, Hill was given this country's most prestigious choral honor, The Founder's Award of Chorus America, in 1992.[i] He was awarded a Medallion of Excellence by Columbia Union College on May 3, 1997, for “his outstanding leadership, indefatigable efforts and intense commitment to the pursuit of excellence in music composition and performance.” He was awarded an honorary doctorate by American University eight days later, on May 11.


Hill was living in Potomac, Maryland, when he died on September 27, 1999, at age 65.  He was survived by his wife, Joyce; a sister, Jean Kenaston; his four children from his first marriage; and six grandchildren.


Sources: 1930 and I940, U.S. Federal Census,; Southern California Happenings,” Pacific Union Recorder, December 10, 1951, 7; Hebrert Ford, “Talents of Music,” Pacific Union Recorder, December 20, 1954, 12; “L.S.C. Band to Tour State,” Pacific Union Recorder, April 21, 1953, 2; California Marriage Index, 1949-1959,; Gala Festival Scheduled,” Pacific Union Recorder, March 16, 1959, 8; “Music, nursing teachers join faculty for new school year,” Columbia Union Visitor, August 15, 1992, 9; “Pro Musica Features Renaissance Music, Columbia Union Visitor, (Hill’s membership in the Roger Wagner Chorale) April 4, 1968, 9; Review and Herald, September 15, 1960, 27; 1961 and 1962 Mizpah, Southwestern Jr. College yearbooks; Richard E. Long, “CUC Choir Sings at Carnegie Hall,” Columbia Union Visitor, February 9, 1967, 19; Paul Hill, “Pro Musica rejoices in 30-year reunion,” (Side bar, “Tribute to a master,” Alice Hoffer and Dick Osborn) Columbia Union Visitor, December 15, 1994; Richard Osborn, “A great teacher: what he means to me,” Columbia Union Visitor, December 1, 1998, 10; It was my good fortune to witness Paul’s work as a festival choir conductor at a festival for the Southern Union of SDA in 1979, where we were both guest conductors, and later when he was guest conductor for a choral festival at Walla Walla College in 1984, when I was serving as music department chair. In both instances, he produced masterful results through his musical insights and ability to interact positively with members of these groups; "Paul Hill in Profile, unknown author, date; "Martin Weil, "Conductor Paul Hill Dies at 65; Founded 180-Voice Choral Group," the Washington Post, 28 September 1999, B5; Sharon Scott, Paul Hill, a Life in Harmony, Washington Post, C1 and 5; Bob Heiss, "D.C enriched by Hill's music," both articles were specials to the Washington Post, in the week of his death (September 27); Obituary, Irvin Molotsky, "Paul Hill, 65, Founder of Washington Chorus," The New York Times, 29 September 1999, A29; Jan Osborne, “Shenandoah Valley Academy Sings for Paul Hill,” Columbia Union Visitor, August 1, 1997, 8; “Paul Hill receives Medallion of Excellence, Columbia Union Visitor, June 15, 1997, 9.