2020 Hoefer Winner Peter Hilliard ‘98 crafts music for SF Girls Chorus

Peter Hilliard ‘98

A highly accomplished composer of vocal music, Hilliard explores six dimensions of the Virgin Mary for this SFCM Hoefer commission

Selections drawn from writings of abolitionist Sojourner Truth, poet Christina Rossetti, Saint Thérѐse of Lisieux, and others make up the text of Philadelphia-based composer Peter Hilliard's commissioned work entitled "Six Views of the Virgin.”

SFCM commissioned "Six Views" from Hilliard as the 2020 winner of the Hoefer Prize. Launched in 2011, the Hoefer Prize, named for San Francisco arts patron Jacqueline Stanhope Hoefer, honors an SFCM alumnus or alumna who graduated at least five years previously with a $15,000 commission, a performance of the new work, and a week-long residency that includes seminars, master classes, and private consultations with composition students.

Hilliard's residency and premiere have been delayed due to COVID-19 and will likely take place in the fall.

The SFCM Composition faculty determines each year's winner. Department Chair David Conte taught Hilliard back in the '90s and has watched the evolution of his career over the past twenty years with admiration. "He has excelled in choral music and opera," Conte said, referencing Hilliard's achievements, which include the publication of choral works, awards from the National Opera Association, and a recent production of his opera The Last American Hammer with the Pittsburgh Opera. He also explained that the Conservatory rotated through different ensemble collaborators for the Hoefer Prize and that Hilliard was an especially good fit for the San Francisco Girls Chorus, the highly renowned Grammy Award-winning ensemble whose residence at the Kanbar Center makes them a Civic Center artistic partner for SFCM.

Conte described Hilliard’s compositional personality: “In a time when it could be said that musical style is often wildly eclectic, Peter’s musical language is firmly grounded in an American vernacular related to his sensitivity to American texts."

Marnie Breckenridge ‘96, who will sing in the premiere of “Six Views of the Virgin,” is thrilled to work with Peter as the two share similar views about the nature of music. “Peter says that ‘Performing music is a courageous act of love.’ I completely agree with this. And I say that composing music is also an act of love and bravery as it puts notes out there for others to decipher, perform and absorb.”

Hilliard, a native of Redding, Calif., had ambitions to be an opera singer when he left high school. After beginning his studies at the Peabody Conservatory, he soon realized "I didn't have the instrument to sustain a career" and transferred to SFCM to study composition with David Conte while continuing to study voice. "I really treasure my time in San Francisco," he said. "It's where I became a musician."

After SFCM he earned a graduate degree in Musical Theatre Writing at NYU, where he met librettist Matt Boresi. The pair have written 7 operas as well as numerous other works over the past 20 years

In the case of "Six Views," Hilliard selected and compiled the texts himself, arranging them for soprano soloist over Mary's Magnificat "as a kind of commentary," he said: "The words of Mary in Luke’s gospel have served as an inspiration 'from generation to generation,’ and Mary herself has served as a model for women through the centuries as they have looked for their own place in the faith traditions that grew around the baby she bore," he writes in his program note for the piece. He also described the work as tonal and lush, influenced in part by the music of Ravel and Poulenc.

In the meantime before the premiere, Hilliard is hard at work developing a comedic monodrama with librettist Boresi about a man caught up in a Nigerian email scam—"It's about gullibility about ourselves and what we believe about the world around us," he said—and an opera about Chevalier John Taylor, the British eye doctor who blinded Bach and Handel with his quackery.

The duo also conceived a project to create a short virtual opera to serve as a frame to connect nine other works for a variety of small opera companies and composers around the country in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. They are renewing that project for a second year.

"My music can be difficult to sing, I won't lie," Hilliard said. "But most singers tell me that once they've worked hard on it it's very rewarding. Honestly, the voice knows what it wants to do. I first learned the important lesson of creating singable parts through premiering the role of Jim in David Conte’s opera The Gift of the Magi in 1997 when I was a student at SFCM. It is a lesson that has stood me in good stead throughout my career as a composer for the voice.”

Learn more about SFCM’s composition department.