Profile of Philip Highfill

For Intro to Music Criticism:

Dodging thrown chairs, scrambling through opera scores with no conductor, accompanying “nightmare” tuba sonatas as a graduate student, and often being under-appreciated: this is the life of Philip Highfill, Professor of Accompanying and Coaching, and Director of the Arts and Sciences Orchestra at Oberlin. When he was a coach and rehearsal pianist at San Francisco Opera, “Franco Bonisolli threw a chair at the director and I was in between the two of them,” he said. “While playing the penultimate dress rehearsal of a production of Carmen at San Francisco, the singer playing Frasquita did “something on stage that happens to set [the conductor] off, and he left the pit. And this was a difficult part of the piece.” And yet he loves being a vocal accompanist. “It’s a very sensual experience. Because you’re involved in the breathing process, and there’s just the pure beauty of the sounds, not just vocally but in association with the words.”

Highfill discovered vocal accompanying during his sophomore year at Yale, and since then he has worked with some of the greatest singers of the 20th century, including Luciano Pavarotti, soprano Leontyne Price, soprano Montserrat Caballé, and mezzo Teresa Berganza. He also conducts: the Arts and Sciences Orchestra, operas when he taught at University of Tennessee, and stints in the Panamanian National Concert Association and the Summer Opera Theater of Washington, though he sees it as related to playing with singers. “A lot of what we do as accompanists is not dissimilar to conducting in terms of being responsible for the overall flow of the music, taking time where singers need time, giving support where that’s helpful, always one hopes in an empathetic way,” he said.  

That sense of empathy distinguishes him as a professor and musician. It causes him to emphasize to student accompanists the importance of supporting singers in difficult passages and in their breathing. He is an ideal partner for a singer, attuned as he is to their difficulties. “We don’t have to stand there in front of the audience and sing with our bodies,” he said, “we’re not subject to fluctuations of the weather, dealing with colds and allergies. I have great compassion and admiration for [singers].” Empathy makes him an invested and pleasant mentor, who lengthens his day and comes in on the weekend to provide his students with extra coachings. He also attends their recitals, and searches for repertoire that will best fit their personality and voice. And it especially suits him for art song, allowing him to express the emotion of the music and poetry. “What I really love about the song repertoire is that so much can be said in such a finite span of time. So few notes, yet it evokes so much.”

The same can be said of Highfill. He communicates much in few words, his eloquent speech erudite and precise. Before speaking, he often slips into a long pause, carefully contemplating word choice and organizing his thoughts into well-structured sentences. Perhaps this attention to language stems from his father, who was an English Professor, or maybe it is rooted in his studies of poetry.

 “I never took a course in poetry in undergraduate,” he said. But poetry “has been the subject of one of my sabbaticals already. 20 years ago, I had a sabbatical in France. That was my first opportunity to really focus on the texts. I read all of Baudelaire, Verlaine, lots of Hugo, Mallarmé. At the end of the year I even composed pastiches in the style of those poets.”

This is the aesthete side of Highfill, who described an art history survey as “one of the most interesting courses I took as an undergraduate.” He is soon taking a sabbatical to study English and Irish poetry, and considers cultural influences on music he is performing. “I think it’s good to know a little bit about the cultural milieu in which these composers were operating.”

Yet he is not a frail artist-intellectual afraid of the outdoors. Outside of music, one of his great passions is hiking. It’s “a great change of pace from the intellectual life we have here [in Oberlin],” he said. He also mountaineers, rock-climbs, and ice-climbs, having hiked in the Andes, Himalayas and “less than 500 miles from the North Pole, that was a memorable trip.” Even out in nature he is attuned to the beauty and the arts. “There’s so much nature imagery in especially the German song texts, so it’s not uncommon for me to have something spring to my mind playing one of the great Schubert songs.”

German song is some of his favorite music to play, so those memories must be accessed often; hiking in the Arctic probably provides material for his favorite cycle, Schubert’s Winterreise. Schubert was also the source of his most musically satisfying experience: “I was 22, my third performance of the Schubert B-flat [Sonata], and getting to the development section, I was absolutely on another planet, I was so much in the zone. I don’t think I’ve ever had a more enriching experience than that,” he said. His inclination towards German repertoire suited him to working and living in Vienna, where he spent a year as a Fulbright scholar, and later taught at the Hochschule für Musik. While there, he performed with such icons as baritone Wolfgang Holzmair (who he said was one of his favorite singers to work with, being “stimulating, smart, articulate, good with texts, [he brought] texts to life”) and bass Cesare Siepi, who would receive an ovation from a packed house just for walking on stage.

Siepi’s concerts did not provide Highfill’s largest audiences, however. “It was over in a flash, but it was kind of interesting, in a strange way, to play for the biggest audience I’ve ever had, on the Tonight Show for [Placido] Domingo.” 

But one gets the impression that audience size and fame are insignificant to Highfill. “The casual listener is not aware of the importance of [the accompanist]. It’s part of the game, I knew that going in,” he said. But “with just a piano, a poem, two performers, and a few pages of music, perfection is, if never entirely attainable, at least within reach.” 

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