by Ronda Racha Penrice
Fourteen-year-old Bobby Hill is ending 2015 on a high note. Since blowing away Pope Francis and the world with his impassioned rendition of “Pie Jesu” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1985 Requiem during September’s Festival of Families, Hill has found himself in heavy demand.
December has been especially busy for Hill. In his native Philadelphia, he was a featured performer at the annual “A Soulful Christmas,” held at the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall in honor of living gospel legend Shirley Caesar. Not only was he among Ebony’s 2015 Power 100 — which coincides with the landmark magazine’s 70th anniversary — he also performed Louis Armstrong’s enduring “What a Wonderful World” at its Power 100 Gala in Los Angeles on Dec. 2. The illustrious crowd included such fellow honorees as Black-ish creator Kenya Barris, activist Bree Newsome, actor Jesse Williams and singer Janelle Monae.
“My parents have helped me to stay grounded,” Hill says by phone during a choir rehearsal. “They always teach me to stay myself when I leave the house.”
Like most overnight sensations, Hill’s big moment was many years in the making. Robert Wesley Hill first began singing when he was just over 3 years old. “He was already a veteran by the time he got to us in third grade,” says Steve Fisher, founder and artistic director of the Keystone State Boychoir, which placed Hill at the event celebrating Pope Francis during his fall visit to America.
When it comes to youth choirs, Keystone is a big deal. With numerous international tours to its credit, Keystone has performed on all seven continents. So when Latin superstar Juanes decided he needed a boys and girls choir two weeks before the scheduled concert, producers called upon the Keystone State Boychoir and its female counterpart, the Pennsylvania Girlchoir.
Live television is never predictable. As the concert began, the producers faced a 60-second gap to allow for a set change and turned to Fisher for a solution. They suggested filling the gap with the choirs, but Fisher explained that it would be pushing it to get 75 choir members in place in 60 seconds, let alone having them perform. Fisher then suggested Hill. The producers didn’t jump immediately but, with the concert in full swing, they gave it a go — deciding just five minutes before the performance. Fisher had not told Hill, so there was neither rehearsal nor musical accompaniment.
Within Keystone, Hill, who has been with the choir for seven years, shined long before his star-turn before Pope Francis. Back in July, he was featured in The Long Walk, a new opera from composer Jeremy Howard Beck and librettist Stephanie Fleischmann — adapted from Brian Castner’s critically acclaimed book — about a soldier’s return from Iraq. This work’s world premiere was at Opera Saratoga in Saratoga Springs, New York. Before then, Hill sang in the world premiere of Aza’io the Opera in Cittá della Pieve, Italy, as well as in Opera Philadelphia’s production of La Boheme. So, when it came time to fill that 60-second gap, he was no stranger to pressure or the world stage, which is exactly why Fisher had no hesitation in volunteering Hill.
“I can think of a few other boys in the choir that have really remarkable voices as well, but they tend to get very nervous,” Fisher says. “It wasn’t just that [Hill] has a very special voice, but he also has that kind of disposition.”
For Hill, the spontaneity of the moment also helped. “I feel like I really didn’t have time to be nervous because I found out so quickly,” he says. “Also, I knew the song well. So that also helped. It was just going out there and delivering.”
These days — on the heels of actor Mark Wahlberg declaring Hill had “the voice of an angel,” after his moving performance — the young singer is being asked to deliver more often. But he is taking it in stride.
“I am singing, but not that much more,” he says of his schedule, post-Pope Francis. He also insists he’s never been one to baby his voice. “I don’t really do a lot of remedies and stuff like that. Sometimes I’ll definitely do tea or something like that, to keep from wrecking my voice. But I don’t really do like ‘Oh, can’t talk,’ ‘Oh, gotta wear a scarf.’ ”
He does admit, however, that he has made adjustments, especially during studio settings. “I know what my limits are. When my voice starts feeling tired, I’ll stop and take an hour break and drink tea or something. I don’t really push my voice that much, when I have to sing over and over again.”
The soprano isn’t worried about his voice changing. “I’m always adventurous,” Hill says. “I just want to know what it will be like.”
While he says, “I’m going to be a little sad,” about losing his current voice, he promises that “I’m not going to hang on to it for a long time.”
One thing to which he will hang on, however, is his love for classical music. “There’s something timeless about it,” says Hill, who looks forward one day to transforming into a tenor in the tradition of the acclaimed Luciano Pavarotti. “All the music that comes out nowadays, like in 20 years, nobody’ll be listening to it, or it will be like on oldies radio or something like that. But most classical music is timeless.”
And that is music to Lee Pringle’s ears. He is the founder and artistic director of the Charleston-based Colour of Music Festival, which highlights the contributions of black artists to classical music, and which celebrated its third anniversary in October. Pringle applauds Hill.
“Bobby Hill’s angelic voice exemplifies the talent that is among our black and white youth,” Pringle says in an email exchange. “He has a God-given natural talent that includes perfect pitch, which is rare and indeed a gift. I hope his flawless delivery in front of the Pope and millions of people around the globe will inspire young black youth to study classical voice as a profession.”
Music is very much where Hill wants to go. And while he is leaning towards becoming a tenor in anticipation of his voice changing, he is also practical. College and maybe even medical school are also in his plans. “If the music doesn’t work out,” the young Hill says, “I need a back-up plan.”
Today, though, that back-up plan looks decreasingly necessary. Fans can follow his schedule on his website, bobbywhill.com. He has released a version of “O Holy Night,” which is free to download. Not surprisingly, even his days in the Keystone State Boychoir appear numbered. “He’s auditioning now for film and commercials. So, it’s a little bit a question of availability,” Fisher says about Hill’s participation in scheduled choir activities like tours to Chile and Peru. “He has a lot of different opportunities now.”