Matthew Phelps to compete in national organ competition and record premiere

By: Sean Mcmahon

Xavier University’s Matthew Phelps, director of Concert Choir, is a finalist in the Rodgers National Classical Organ Performance Competition.

He will compete against two students from The Julliard School on Oct. 4.

The competition coincides with the broadcasting of Phelps’ recording of Dan Locklair’s “Trumpet of Light” on Pipedreams, a program featured on NPR.

Xavier Newswire sat down with Phelps before this momentous occasion.

Xavier Newswire (XN): What brought you back to Cincinnati?

Matthew Phelps (MP): Some days I don’t know. I’ve always wanted to do a doctorate, and Cincinnati Conservatory of Music (CCM) offered me the option to do it. However, I was still on the fence because I wasn’t sure a doctorate was worth leaving my church job.

That’s when I called Tom Merrill (chair of the Music and Theatre Department) on a whim, saying, “I’m thinking about moving back. If I do, will there be a job for me to teach?”

He said, out of the blue, “Well now that you bring it up….” He was thinking about giving up the concert choir to do more administration work.

That was enough to move me off the fence. Had I not had the opportunity to teach at Xavier, I would have stayed in New York.

XN: When you found out you were competing against Julliard students, were you at all intimidated?

MP: No. I know Paul Jacobs, who teaches organ at Julliard, from my time in New York.

So the first thing I did was email him and start talking smack.

I told him his students had better be ready or they will be pounded.

I got into Julliard as a performer in the organ department, so I am confident that I play as well as they do, but I’m also realistic.

They (Julliard students) are sitting there practicing the organ as their full-time job.

I practice the organ a lot, but I’m also teaching at Xavier and doing my doctorate CCM. I’m realistic but I’m pretty happy with the way I am playing.

XN: What was the process like getting your song on NPR?

MP: When I was in New York, I was the music director for a large church outside Manhattan.

We installed a new organ console and wanted to celebrate it. One congregation member was related to Dan Locklair and asked him to write a piece for the occasion.

He wrote “Trumpet of Light” and we performed at the dedication recital and recorded it not only for posterity, but also for Dan.

Dan is a well-connected and respected composer internationally. So through those connections, he was able to put the recording in the right hands.

The piece was actually supposed to be broadcast a year ago, but it kept being pushed back. It’s kind of nice though, that it coincides now with the Rodgers competition. It’s nice to get your stock high when you have two things that are rapid in succession.