Take It To the Limit: Josh Phillips, French Horn

David Lewellen

Tagged Under: Brass, French Horn, MSO Musicians

Sitting outside a café in the Third Ward, wearing sunglasses, a backwards baseball cap, and a T-shirt that exposes the elaborate tattoo on his forearm, Josh Phillips looks more like the drummer in a grunge band than a classical musician.

But Phillips has held the Milwaukee Symphony’s fourth horn position for six years — and before that, he spent six years in the Army’s West Point Band. It’s an unusual background for an orchestra musician, but as a new conservatory graduate, “this was a great opportunity to pay off debt,” he said. “I had nothing to lose as far as trying, and it worked out.”

After he won the Army audition, he had to go to basic training, like any other new recruit. “It’s just like in the movies — doing everything wrong and getting screamed at all the time,” he said with a laugh. “But you learn to push your limits and what you can do.”

After his classical training, military band music was “a complete 180,” Phillips said. “But it’s still performing, playing music at a high level. And now that I’m out, I realize that I’ll never play marches again that well. … There’s more responsibility and history to playing it in a military band.”

The Army was also indirectly responsible for his hobby of running ultramarathons — not from basic training, but because about five years ago, he began to get together with some veteran buddies who “enjoyed beer and running, and we did a lot of both.” That led to a marathon, which led to a half-marathon on a wooded trail, which led to the Superior 100 Mile Trail Race, which is exactly what it sounds like — 100 miles through the woods in far northern Minnesota. He has done the race for the past four years, and this summer he logged a time of 29 hours, 19 minutes.

That time includes running throughout the night, wearing a headlamp, but he said, “ ‘Running’ becomes a little bit subjective. It’s a mix of hiking and jogging. When the sun comes up, it’s easier to run faster.”

Extreme running “is a good balance with work,” Phillips said. “It’s physical, it releases a lot of stress, and it’s a lot of alone time. That can be good or challenging.”

Phillips left the Army in the spring of 2011 to try to win an orchestra job. He and his wife, Ellen Gartner-Phillips, had moved to Houston to freelance and teach, and he was also working with high school marching bands — but then he won the MSO audition in October, before they finished unpacking.

“Josh is always digging a little deeper, looking for whatever he can do to make the section better,” said MSO principal horn Matthew Annin. “He’s got great ears. He hears pitch really well, which is really important in the fourth horn. He can lay down a hammer and play loud and powerful, but then in something like Beethoven’s Ninth, he has a really beautiful sound.”

That long solo in the third movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is written for fourth horn but played by the principal in many orchestras. But Annin said, “In my opinion, it should be played by the fourth horn, if they’re comfortable with it. I’ve heard Josh play it a number of times, and it’s a special moment in the symphony.”

Phillips and his wife recently bought a house in Bay View and are going through the learning curve of first-time homeowners. For their tenth anniversary this past summer, they went mountain climbing in Wyoming. “I would do it again next year,” he said. “But I’m not sure about Ellen.” Ellen, a former substitute violist with the MSO, now has her MBA degree and is a management consultant with Deloitte in Chicago —and kept him company for 18 miles of his 100-mile run.

Extra lung capacity from running helps with playing a little, but Phillips said that a bigger benefit is relief from hours of sitting still in rehearsal. During the last three weeks of last season, when conductor laureate Edo de Waart said farewell with a lineup of Mahler, Bruckner and other heavyweights, Phillips wore his heart rate monitor onstage, out of curiosity — “just because I’m a nerd. And it went up in the loud spots, like you’d expect. It would be interesting to compare it if I wasn’t in shape.”

Photo by Zach Pierce