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Phillips’ composition earns top state honor

May 31, 2012


The first half of Shandy Phillips’ “Concertino for Violin, Viola, Piano and String Orchestra” is slow, while the second half is speedy; however both carry the same goal.

Both halves use multiple harmonies, with the four instrumental elements going in similar, but not necessarily identical, directions. The melodies echo each other, weave into and out of each other and, in the end, bounce off each other.

“My goal was to produce a musical picture of a large conversation, like a party, where there are many conversations going on at once,” Phillips said. “A snippet of each conversation leads to a different tangent, a different angle.”

Phillips has won the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters award in classical music composition for “Concertino,” and the MIAL will honor her at its banquet June 9 at Jackson’s Mississippi Museum of Art.

Past winners of MIAL’s annual awards include Milton Babbitt for music, Eudora Welty for literature and Walter Anderson and Morgan Freeman for lifetime achievements. Phillips said Babbitt was still a professor at The Juilliard School in New York City when she was an undergraduate there, but she never took one of his classes. She also said receiving the same award does not mean she considers herself to be in Babbitt’s echelon.

“I’m honored to receive the award, but I would not put myself in the same category as Milton Babbitt, who received many awards worldwide,” Phillips said. “I knew Milton Babbitt before I did most of my writing. I didn’t start writing until I was a senior at Juilliard.”

In fact, Phillips said, she doesn’t consider herself more successful or esteemed than any of her fellow composers by virtue of the award. What the award does mean to her is satisfaction, she said.

“To make that piece took almost five months of almost constant work,” Phillips said. “It’s a very rewarding to receive an award for something I do regularly. I write all the time; to get an award for it is fabulous.”

Phillips said she wrote “Concertino” specifically for a 9-11 minute slot in the Starkville and Mississippi State University Symphony Orchestra’s January 2011 concert. She performed the violin solo herself, accompanied by her sister Holland Phillips on viola and MSU assistant music professor Rosangela Sebba on piano.

“It was a great experience to premiere (Shandy’s) music, even better because we talked about certain details with the composer (herself),” Sebba said. “Shandy deserves the award for several reasons. She has a great talent as a musician, she is humble and opened to suggestions, and has a grasp of the instruments. It is different to perform a work when the composer plays the instruments rather than just compose, making the music very idiomatic. I have performed other works by her and truly enjoy every time.”

Shandy also maintains a private studio teaching local students, co-directs the Mississippi State University Orchestra and serves as an adjunct professor at MSU. Michael Brown, head of MSU’s music department and conductor for the first performance of “Concertino,” said Shandy is an excellent teacher for the same reason she is an excellent composer — her focus.

“(She has) an ability to focus with laser-type clarity on an aspect of a student’s performance, like their hand positioning,” Brown said. “She really can focus in and get right to the point. I think (the MIAL award is) part of the package that we get with (Shandy). She’s a very talented violinist, a fine composer and an excellent teacher.”

Brown said Shandy Phillips’ achievement speaks well for Starkville, given her decision to dedicate her time to teaching the violin in the town where she grew up. Shandy Phillips said she wanted to put her talent to use in Starkville because Starkville is where it developed.

“I’ve had music playing in my head for as long as I’ve had memory,” Shandy Phillips said. “My parents wrote the grant that got strings into public school in Starkville. We started having orchestra when I was in sixth grade, (and) I was in the orchestra through the 11th grade.”

Shandy Phillips said she is grateful to her parents for supporting her and other musicians in Starkville through the years. Sebba said she is also grateful to have her at MSU.

“(The MIAL award) means that we have an exceptional musician working with us, and she deserves the acknowledgment,” Sebba said. “She has already brought greatness by being in charge of the strings program and the student orchestra, but the award is the recognition of it.”

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