Sunday Concerts

Phillips Music

A Phillips Tradition

The Sunday Concerts series at the Phillips is one of the longest running music series in Washington, DC. Put together by Duncan Phillips’s assistant Elmira Bier, who served as the first Director of Music at The Phillips Collection, this series has run for over 75 years. The performances regularly feature celebrated domestic and international performers, pieces from classic to living composers, and an astonishing amount of debuts and premiers. Performers range from established, well-regarded artists to promising young musicians.

The art hanging on the walls of the Music Room is regularly curated to fit with the themes of each concert. The setting of music performances not only within a museum but in a room specifically designed to contain music with art adds to the signature aspects of Phillips Music.

A History of Phillips Music

Duncan Phillips was always fascinated by the relationship between music and the visual arts. In 1915 he wrote that while music provides people with “spiritual nourishment and exultation . . . paintings seek to speak to their souls in the same musical way.” When the museum opened in 1921, music quickly became an important part of its activities, with concerts held in the oak-paneled Music Room. The Washington Chamber Music Society put on concerts regularly, including a series given by candlelight; the Society Editor of The Washington Post wrote in 1937: “Dusk yesterday at the Phillips Memorial Gallery found the famous paintings in the main room illuminated, all other lights dimmed, and a representative group gathered for the season’s first Candlelight Concert.” Given the success of these concerts, it was an obvious step for the Phillips Memorial Gallery (as it was then known) to put on its own concert series. This began in 1941, running through the years of World War II and providing the solace of music during dark times.

In the early years, concerts explored the classics of the chamber music repertoire while other performances were devoted to living composers. Offering a platform to the most promising young musicians was always an important aspect of the concerts. The most celebrated of these was the sensational US debut of Glenn Gould. Paul Hume wrote in The Washington Post on January 3, 1955: “January 2 is early for predictions, but it is unlikely that the year 1955 will bring us a finer piano recital than that played yesterday afternoon in the Phillips Gallery. . . . Glenn Gould is a pianist with rare gifts for the world . . . We know of no pianist anything like him of any age.” Others at or near the start of their careers soon followed, including Gary Graffman, Emanuel Ax, and Jessye Norman.

From 1942 until 1972, the Director of Music was Elmira Bier—originally Duncan Phillips’s personal assistant—and her aim was always to encourage artists, whether young or established, to present unusual and challenging programs. Bier was followed by Charles Crowder, who continued the Phillips’s combination of innovative programing, imaginative choice of artists, and the best possible presentation of the classics. He retired in 1997, after 25 years in the post and was succeeded by Mark Carrington, formerly a Washington Post music critic. Carrington began to commission works, which has since inspired new works from a number of composers, including Bright Sheng and Frederic Rzewski. In 2009, Caroline Mousset became the fourth Director of Music. Mousset pioneered the Leading European Composers series and expanded it in 2015/2016 to become Leading International Composers. In 2018, the Phillips welcomed its fifth Director of Music, Jeremy Ney, who leads the current season.

As this extraordinary concert series heads confidently toward its centenary, its freshness remains undimmed, always remaining faithful to Elmira Bier’s concept for the concerts—as true now as it was in 1951 when she wrote: “The byline of the Gallery is ‘A Gallery of Modern Art and Its Sources.’ This is as exciting in music as it is in painting.”
–Nigel Simeone