Claire Fox Hillard conducts a past Peppermint Pops concert at Albany Municipal Auditorium. Hillard has been reinstated as the music director of the Albany Symphony Orchestra.
ALBANY -- As he settles in for his first media interview since the events of Aug. 10, events that threw his orderly world into chaos, Albany Symphony Orchestra conductor Claire Fox Hillard asks for one concession: He doesn't want to talk about those events.
Hillard doesn't have to. The pain and turmoil that have rocked his world since his arrest in Camilla for loitering/prowling are etched on his face, are evident in his eyes.
"I really don't want to discuss that; it's all in the police reports and it's been written about and talked about enough," he says. "All of it's there in black and white.
"Every single one of us is human, and we've all done wrong things. If there was any way I could take back those few moments and few words of that night, I'd do anything. But I can't, and so I take full responsibility for my actions. I'm disappointed in myself, and I'm truly sorry for the turmoil and hurt I've caused. My hope is that the people of this community can forgive me, that they will once again put their trust in me and we can all move forward."
Hillard was suspended last year following an Aug. 10, 2011, incident in Camilla in which he was charged with prowling/loitering and paid a fine. The conductor called police to a Camilla business around 11:50 p.m. that night, where he was found clad in a towel with his clothes shredded. He eventually admitted to police he had been engaged in a sexual encounter behind a nearby business.
After word of the events of Aug. 10 became public, the Albany Symphony Association Board of Trustees voted to suspend Hillard for the remainder of the 2011 season, replacing him with a series of guest conductors. Then, inexplicably, on Dec. 5 the board announced that, after "re-evaluating the climate following the (Aug. 10) incident," it had decided not to bring Hillard back as conductor.
However, in early March the board reversed itself once again, announcing that Hillard would indeed be back to lead the symphony, action that led at least three board members to resign.
"One of the first things I did (after the incident) was meet with the board and ask for their forgiveness," Hillard said. "I assured them that they could trust me just as they had for the past 24 years, and I was humbled that they would do that.
"When I found out they'd changed their mind, I was totally shocked. It was emotionally devastating."
While others worked behind the scenes in what was a successful effort to have Hillard reinstated, the maestro said he was not involved in such efforts.
"Frankly, I was too stunned to know what to do," he said of the board's decision. "I'd put 24 years of my life into the orchestra, and I was in a position where I had to accept the fact that that was being taken from me.
"I did not, however, go out and try to drum up support in an effort to be reinstated. There were those who did, and I was so humbled to learn that I had such true friends who were willing to stand by me."
Hillard said that while he continued to do the things he'd always done -- going to church and out to eat with his family -- reparation of his shattered image started with his family.
"Of course something like this takes a toll on your family," he said. "We talked about it, just like we've always done everything else, and they made it clear that they're of the opinion that 'you're still our dad, you're still my husband, no matter what happens'."
As he's had his future yo-yoed about, Hillard said he's done what he can to assure board members, musicians and members of the community that he's ready to dedicate "more than 100 percent, 180 percent, whatever it takes" to his work with the orchestra.
"I'm a better conductor than I am a talker, but I'm humbled that we've reached a point with the board that they're ready to trust me and I'm ready to trust them," he said. "Now we can move forward.
"I was contacted by 25 to 30 musicians who asked me what they could do. (When it was announced that Hillard had been fired), they asked if they should protest, refuse to play with the orchestra, write letters. I told them that as much as I appreciated their support, there was nothing they could do. I told them not to do anything that would jeopardize the orchestra."
As for the community in general, Hillard said he's "redoubled efforts" to win back the trust he's always enjoyed as conductor of the symphony.
"I've always said this is not the Albany Symphony Orchestra, it's Albany's Symphony Orchestra," he said. "And I am dedicated now to giving all 100,000 people or however many there are in this community, and in fact all 250,000 or so in Southwest Georgia, the quality of symphony music they deserve.
"It's amazing that a city Albany's size has such a wonderful orchestra, museum, community theater, ballet company, three colleges with interest in the arts ... the fabric of an arts scene that you wouldn't find even in some larger cities. We're a part of that, and that's something that's truly important."
Comments made by some in the African-American community indicate a resentment toward Hillard after police reports noted his initial claim that two black men had attacked him, a claim he later recanted. He said he showed "poor judgment" in making the claim, but he said he hoped he would be judged on his 24 years of working with musicians from every segment of the community.
"Some people have said they've heard things from people who 'represent the black community'," Hillard said. "Certainly there are influential leaders of any different racial, ethnic or gender group, but no one speaks for an entire community of people. What people might think about me going forward is an individual decision, not a group decision.
"My hope is that every individual will judge me based on what I do from this point on. I've taken responsibility for what has happened in my life, and now all I can do is show all people of this community that I'm going to do what I say I'll do."
And what Hillard says he plans to do is work even harder than he has in the past to make the symphony an even more visible part of the community.
"I've always put a total effort into the symphony," he said, "but I'm going to work to find ways for more community involvement, more educational opportunities.
"As I've dealt with these past few months, family and friends have been so supportive. I will always be grateful. When things like this happen, we have a tendency to speak in cliches: You know, 'What happens in life prepares you for what's ahead' and 'how you respond to the bad things that happen is what's important.'
"I hope the people in this community will move forward with me, will again give me the trust that they have in the past. I guess one more cliche won't hurt, the one from Browning: 'Come grow old with me; the best is yet to come'."