BHS Hall of Famer Phil Mattson and his singers take stage Sunday
Brainerd alumnus and inductee into the Brainerd High School Distinguished Hall of Fame — Phil Mattson, with his Phil Mattson Singers — will perform a concert entitled “What a Wonderful World” at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Franklin Arts Center in Brainerd.
Tickets are $10 and are available at the door or from the Crossing Arts Alliance if purchased early. Crossing Arts Alliance members pay $5.
Mattson, who attended Harrison Elementary School and graduated from Washington High School in Brainerd in 1956, is internationally-known as a pianist, arranger, conductor and teacher. He’s been nominated twice for Grammy awards and he established The School for Music Vocations at Southwestern Community College in Creston, Iowa.
At a sunny sidewalk table in Minneapolis, it was my good fortune to be with this humble and talented man as he remembered his early years in Brainerd. Smiling, he shared that his high school choir director, Curt Hansen, gave him the keys to the auditorium so that he could practice on the grand piano. Hansen was young Phil’s inspiration, mentor and confidant. “How so?” I asked. He said, “Well, I guess by the example of his own life. He was extremely gifted and always prepared. He made it easy to be good. And he cared so much about his choirs.”
The summer following graduation, Mattson auditioned and was accepted into the U.S. Navy music program. Mattson was assigned to the band at Great Lakes Naval Training Center, north of Chicago. This select group of musicians, performed concerts and played music for goodwill functions across the Fifth Naval District. During his Navy career, Mattson met and married his first wife Joyce, and together they had two sons, both musicians, Michael and Mark.
After the Navy, Mattson wanted to attend college but was not certain of his plan. It was during this time, that he met a young pianist, Margaret Nelson. They later married and began their family in 1962. They have five children, Phil Jr., Elizabeth, Joshua, Sarah and Lucas.
While working as a staff musician at the Baldwin Piano Company in Cincinnati, Ohio, he was offered a sales position with Riddick Piano Company in Indianapolis. After four years of selling pianos, Mattson had what he describes as a “cathartic” experience. While spending a few days alone in the woods and reading, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay, “Self Reliance,” he realized, with no doubts, that he must do music seriously. Hansen, who had helped Mattson get his first musical arrangement published, was there again and encouraged him to enroll at Concordia College in Moorhead. He enrolled in the fall of 1968.
The next years were filled with classes, practicing piano, writing music, part-time jobs and raising children. Degrees in music and philosophy/religion, summa cum laude, from Concordia were followed by graduate degrees in choral literature and conducting at the University of Iowa. After two years of working part-time jobs, he was offered the director of choral activities position at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, Calif. A qwest to “fly a little higher” led Mattson to similar positions at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., and later at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash.
During the summer of 1981, while visiting family in Wisconsin and riding his Harley-Davidson, a car/motorcycle crash nearly took his life. After two months in the hospital, Mattson was confined to a year of healing at home. It was during this time that a group of students from Gonzaga began coming to him to take lessons in music theory, arranging and group singing. This group became the PM Singers. Phil Mattson and the PM Singers received two Grammy nominations and in 1983 won the first prize of $10,000 in Johnny Mann’s Great American Choral Festival. Working with this group led Mattson to the understanding, that in order to adequately prepare young vocal-musicians to compete in today’s music world, the educational curriculum needed to focus more on piano, arranging and learning how to function efficiently in a recording studio. From this experience evolved the Phil Mattson School in Spokane, Wash.
Mattson conducted the Carnegie Hall Vocal Jazz Festival for many years and has published more than 100 musical arrangements. Manhattan Transfer, The Real Group, The Four Freshmen and Chanticleer are among the professional groups that have commissioned his arrangements.
Mattson’s advice to young aspiring musicians: “The musical life is wonderful, but music is a serious art, one that you can’t cheat at. You must pay your dues. If you don’t, you might, unfortunately, become famous, and then have to live your life in fear, knowing that your competence is limited and your fame you have not earned.”