Robert Phillips Works to Expand Classical Guitar Repertoire

When it comes to the world of classical music, the guitar, at best, has a history of playing second fiddle. There’s just not a wide reserve of music composed for the instrument, and that’s something Lakeland guitarist Robert Phillips was seeking to remedy when creating his newest recording.

“One of the things classical guitarists have a problem with is repertoire,” he says. “For music to remain viable, you need a lot of pieces. Guitar has been sort of a second-class citizen for the past few hundred years.”

Over the past five years, Phillips has been working with six Central Florida composers on a collaborative effort, the culmination of which is the release of his newest recording, “Night/Dances.” The recording features original classical compositions for the guitar, all performed and recorded by Phillips at Beacon Hill Fellowship in Lakeland.

Phillips chose to commission area composers — three of whom are guitarists — so that he could meet with them in person. All six vary stylistically.

“The unifying factor is that they’re all dance music,” Phillips says. “We came up with this really extensive suite, which is a lot more than I imagined. I was looking for composers who were writing in an idiom between artistic sophistication (high art) and audience appeal. And I wanted music that would challenge me professionally.”

Although not a guitarist, Lakeland resident and professional trombonist Howard Buss, who composed “Dances and Interludes” (track seven on the recording), was more than willing to accept the challenge.

And while he’s been composing since the early 1970s, this was Buss’ first time writing for solo guitar.

“This piece was written to be a true solo that was idiomatic for the instrument, but at the same time it’s not doing it in the traditional way,” Buss says. “Kind of pushing the barrier a little bit.”

“Dances and Interludes” borrows from a form of Latin music specifically designed for the drum set.

“I don’t know of any other discipline where you take what’s written for drum set and apply to the guitar,” Buss adds. “It’s got a choppy, energetic flavor similar to the Cuban songo.”

In addition to gaining exposure for the composers, Phillips hopes that other guitarists will hear the pieces and want to play them themselves. It’s a concept which resonates with Lakeland resident Scott Totten.

Totten, as lead guitarist and musical director for The Beach Boys, professionally performs an entirely different style of music, but he has a deep sense of appreciation for classical guitar, as well as for Phillips’ efforts.

“I think it’s well understood that the guitar wasn’t really a well featured instrument back in the days of Bach and Beethoven,” says Totten, who’s studied classical guitar with Phillips. “And I think it’s really an incredible thing when a well-known player commissions works from others.

“I’ve listened to the album three times now. I think t’s fantastic. There’s a thread that runs through them all. It’s very accessible, yet there are also spots where it deviates (from this). My hat is off to all the composers, and to Robert as the performer.”

“Night/Dances” can be purchased directly from Robert’s website or via downloads through Amazon, iTunes and Naxos music library and is also available on streaming services Spotify and Pandora.

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