Craig Phillips was barely beyond toddling when he asked his mother to take him to the organ loft at their Baptist church in Nashville.
“I was fascinated by the sheer size and power you have at your fingertips,” Phillips said of the immense Schantz pipe instrument.
Since then, he has pulled out all the stops on a career devoted to music.
This week the American Guild of Organists bestows on Phillips, music director and organist at All Saints’ Church in Beverly Hills, its distinguished composer award for 2012. Phillips, the 17th recipient, joins an illustrious group that includes composer-critic Virgil Thomson, Ned Rorem and Richard Proulx.
“Phillips is acclaimed as an organist of great skill and a composer of great imagination,” said Eileen Guenther, the guild’s president.
At a “mid-career” 50, Phillips has composed more than 125 works for organ, bassoon and other instruments and choral groups. He has written for the Assn. of Anglican Musicians and the Washington National Cathedral and has been a featured soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Los Angeles Mozart Orchestra.
Phillips said he “wasn’t the most disciplined” student when he began taking piano lessons at 7. He gained momentum, composing his first piece at 14 and launching organ study at 15. Soon after, his father, a Baptist minister, died, and friends arranged for a scholarship at a small Nashville conservatory. Phillips received his undergraduate degree in music at Oklahoma Baptist University, then a master’s and a doctor of musical arts at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.
At All Saints’, an Episcopal church, he directs about 90 singers (including this reporter) in four ensembles while typically playing for five weekly services. He also performs and conducts Evensong and Taizé (a form of prayer modeled after a monastic community in France), along with special services at Easter and Christmas.
His eclectic style reflects the influence of masters Bach and Beethoven and modern-day minimalists Arvo Pärt and John Tavener.
“There’s this wonderful melting pot of different styles within his harmonic language, from the counterpoint of Bach to the romantic styles of Franck and Widor, combined with the energy and drive of Stravinsky and Bartok,” said David Heller, a longtime friend and professor of music and university organist at Trinity University in San Antonio. “You can tell an organist wrote it. His easiest pieces fall right under the fingers immediately.”
Quietly spiritual, Phillips gets inspiration from walks around his West Hollywood neighborhood and from the sunflower fields and church bells of Alet-les-Bains, a medieval village in southern France where he vacations. The 2001 death of his 31-year-old brother, guitarist Brooks Phillips, gave rise to the poignant “A Song Without Words” for cello and organ. Lyrics to his choral pieces come from scripture and the work of Walt Whitman and other poets.
Founded in 1896, the New York-based guild has about 20,000 members in more than 300 local chapters throughout the United States and abroad.
Coincidentally, when Phillips receives the honor in July, it will be at the guild’s national convention in Nashville. He will perform pieces for organ, brass and percussion. His mother, Karen, plans to be in the audience.