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Composer Eugene Phillips' sons to debut his work memorializing friends

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Sunday, Oct. 11, 2009

Specialization can be useful, even essential in many professions.

Musician Eugene Phillips is one of those people who takes a contrary view.

"I think it's important to widen your perspectives," he says.

That's how he's lived his life. He's been playing the fiddle and composing music in Pittsburgh for more than 80 years, and he taught for more than half of that time. His sons -- Daniel and Todd -- are internationally renowned musicians as the violinists of the Orion String Quartet.

Now 90, Phillips' most recent concert performance was by his own string quartet in July. The world premiere of his newly composed string quintet will be featured Monday at the Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society. The Orion String Quartet opens the season at Carnegie Music Hall, Oakland.

The program consists of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Quartet in G major, K. 387, the first of six he dedicated to his friend and fellow composer Joseph Haydn; Phillips' "A Tribute for Two"; and Antonin Dvorak's String Quintet in G major, Op. 77.

Timothy Cobb, principal bass of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York City since 1986, will play the Phillips and Dvorak.

Phillips began writing his string quintet, he says, while thinking of Irving Faigen, his good friend, brother-in-law, and a music enthusiast who was one of the founders of Pittsburgh Concert Society.

"He died a couple of years ago, and I've been wanting to write something," he says, "not a requiem or anything like that, more a memory piece or a tribute."

While he was working on the slow movement, another friend, Robert Holloway, died suddenly and the new composition became a dual tribute.

The slow movement is at a moderate tempo, an Andante, and is "reminiscent of both of these guys. Their personalities are not mixed, they come one after the other. It's not a tone poem. You might call it a threnody, with some very tender spots which each of these guys had. It ends 'dolce lamentoso,' a little bit of moaning but it's a nice moaning," says the composer.

The finale recalls the departed as they lived. Phillips says Faigen and Holloway both had very dry humor that could be spiky.

"At the end, the music doesn't mellow out but broadens to a big union on (the note) B. Five octaves by God! I did it."

Phillips began learning music from his father, who came to Pittsburgh from Poland. Although the family moved a lot, Phillips grew up in Dormont.

At age 9, Phillips began playing in his father's Polish dance bands. And as his father wrote some mazurkas, he decided to write some, too.

After serving in the Army during World War II, Phillips went to Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University) on the GI Bill, studying composition with Nikolai Lopatnikov and violin with Hugo Kolberg, concertmaster of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

Phillips joined the Pittsburgh Symphony as a violist in 1947, and also played in the first violin section. Although he left the orchestra for a dozen years to teach, he continued as a substitute violinist and violist. Ultimately, he tired of the 50 students a week, reduced his teaching load and rejoined the ensemble, finally retiring from it in 1988. He and his wife have been among Pittsburgh's leading music teachers for many decades.

It was at Carnegie Mellon that Phillips met many life-long friends, including composer Lester Trimble, as well as his wife. If there was new music to play, Phillips was the go-to guy. For one piece, he needed a particularly good pianist and chose Natalie.

"Natalie was the best pianist around," he says. "We're still playing together 57 years later."

Additional Information:

'Orion String Quartet'

Presented by: Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society

When: 7:30 p.m. Monday

Admission: $35; $15 for students

Where: Carnegie Music Hall, Oakland

Details: 412-624-4129

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