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This is the early Canadian Brass, with Bill Phillips on the left. The photo was taken on the grounds of the Music Building at U of T near Philosopher’s Walk.Courtesy of Arnold Matthews/Handout

Bill Phillips always gave 100 per cent, except when he gave just 95.

In 1976 at Toronto’s St. James Cathedral Auditorium, he was conducting the New Chamber Orchestra, which he had founded. For the concert’s encore, Mr. Phillips dedicated Bach’s Air from the Suite in D to Robert Welch, Ontario’s Minister of Culture and Recreation. The piece ended abruptly before completion, as Mr. Phillips explained that in keeping with the minister’s funding policies, the orchestra had reduced the piece by five per cent.

The cheeky, pointed protest was in keeping with the musician’s sense of humour and fierce advocacy for the arts.

Mr. Phillips, a conductor, music director and noted trumpeter, died of diabetes-caused kidney failure on Feb. 17, in Plattsburgh, N.Y. He was 85. He died peacefully with family members by his side.

A mischief-prone youth, he was handed a trumpet to play in 1950 as a young teenager in the Guelph Police Boy’s Band, a scrappy bunch of novices aged eight to 18. From that humble beginning, he studied at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, recorded with the London Gabrieli Brass Ensemble in England and was an original member of the internationally celebrated Canadian Brass quintet before creating and directing the New Chamber Orchestra in 1973.

What he did not do, contrary to a myth he himself perpetuated, was play the piccolo trumpet solo on the Beatles’ 1967 song Penny Lane. “He repeated this many times to many people,” said Stuart Laughton, a fellow trumpeter in the original Canadian Brass lineup. “He later confessed to me that he had been kidding.”

Mr. Phillips’s trumpet skills are evident on the London Gabrieli Brass Ensemble’s 1970 album The Four Elements, released on the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label. The ensemble began life in the 1960s with the objective of rehabilitating the then neglected brass music of Giovanni Gabrieli, and a second aim of broadening the brass chamber music repertoire by commissioning contemporary works.

On stage, the group’s performances were noted for their light touch, crisp ensemble work and instrumental virtuosity, as well as playful banter that served them well during educational concerts. Mr. Phillips brought that formula back to Canada with him in 1970.

“For Bill, the whole thing needed to be an enjoyable experience,” said Thoma Ewen, his wife from 1977 through the 1980s. “In North America, classical music was staid and rigid. He wanted to make it more accessible, to democratize it.”

Canadian Brass was formed in 1970 by tuba player Charles Daellenbach and trombonist Gene Watts. An all-brass ensemble was a relatively new concept, but the quintet developed a unique rapport with concert audiences with its cheerful musicality and lively onstage dialogue. Canadian Brass, still active, achieved success with baroque music, Dixieland tunes and new compositions.

“Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau very heavily invested in Canadian artists internationally,” Mr. Laughton said. “Canadian Brass rode that like a wave.”

Mr. Phillips’s own ride with Canadian Brass was short-lived. In 1973 he founded what would come to be known as the New Chamber Orchestra, a professional baroque ensemble composed largely of Toronto Symphony Orchestra members that lasted until 1987. He served as conductor, managing director and sometime soloist.

Though helped by annual grants from the Canada Council. the Ontario Arts Council and the Toronto government, the orchestra was plagued early on by personnel turnover and overdue paycheques. “Everybody has always been paid, though,” Mr. Phillips told The Globe and Mail in 1975.

By 1976, the orchestra began getting steadier work and was able to afford paid rehearsal time with the help of grants from Wintario, the Toronto Musicians’ Association and city and borough governments. That summer the orchestra played a series of free evening concerts in parks in central Toronto and suburban areas.

At an appearance in Toronto’s Etobicoke district attended by about 50 children and a dozen or so adults, Mr. Phillips introduced each piece to the youngsters, squatting on his haunches as he spoke on stage. “You guys have got to listen – we’re here live, not like on the TV. We’re real live people, just like you!”

He eventually settled in Plattsburgh, N.Y., where he conducted the Plattsburgh Community Orchestra and the Adirondack Youth Orchestra. In August, 1996, he helped the American rock band Phish organize a two-day festival at the decommissioned Plattsburgh Air Force Base.

Because the band wished to incorporate classical music into an imaginative event called the Clifford Ball, Mr. Phillips arranged for chamber ensembles to play all over the grounds. He also put together an orchestra for a festival-opening concert of Debussy, Ravel, Chabrier, Fauré and Stravinsky.

“To look out at the audience was just incredible,” he later told the local newspaper, the Press-Republican. “It was wonderful. No nerves or anything.”

The festival combined overhead flights by gliders and airplanes with carnival rides, jugglers and men on stilts. In front of more than 70,000 Phish fans, Mr. Phillips took the stage wearing a white tuxedo and cummerbund.

The costume was purposely ironic for a music convener dedicated to the informalization of classical music. A massive unwashed crowd in favour of tie-dye, hacky sack and noodled jam-band music was now digging Debussy.

“They all partook,” Mr. Phillips said. “They were all humming along.”

William Patrick Phillips was born Sept. 19, 1937, in Guelph, Ont. His father, Leon David Phillips, worked at a family-run dairy and played violin. His mother, Florence Phillips (née Kenny), worked as a housekeeper, and, in the 1930s, played semi-professional baseball.

By his own admission, he was a rebellious teenager who broke his nose more than once playing football. He found a music mentor in Ted Denver, who had served in the First World War as a band sergeant and cornet soloist in the 34th Battalion. With the full and grateful support of the local police chief, he formed the Guelph Police Boys’ Band to teach the boys music and keep them out of trouble.

Practices took place in a federal building where Mr. Denver was the janitor. The band, which took part in local parades and memorial functions as well as music competitions outside the city, lasted until 1955. Their most famous alumnus was trumpeter and educator Fred Mills, who, in 1972, replaced Mr. Phillips in Canadian Brass.

Mr. Phillips was a “very strong and reliable player,” according to early Canadian Brass trumpet player Mr. Laughton, who remembered his colleague as a “character” who drove an Austin Mini with a back seat covered in hair from a pair of Afghan hounds. “Bill’s housekeeping was quite casual,” Mr. Laughton recalled. “He’d leave his prized piccolo trumpet on the table and his dogs took to chewing it.”

The New Hart House Orchestra (an amateur group for members of the University of Toronto community who had musical training) was established in 1976 under the direction of Mr. Phillips. The “New” was eventually dropped; the orchestra gives concerts on campus and elsewhere to this day.

From 1978 to 1987, he conducted the Toronto Jewish Folk Choir. Occasionally there would be disagreements among choir members about how to pronounce some Yiddish words – the Lithuanian way or the Polish way. Mr. Phillips, who was not Jewish, would joke, “Well, in my village …”

Said Linda Litwack, a choir member, “He had a lot of patience for a job that was a bit like herding cats, given the propensity for singers to talk when they should have been listening.”

A broken front tooth would affect his trumpet playing. “He tried desperately to get the proper dental work done that would fix it, but it was never quite the same,” said his wife, Ms. Cameron-Phillips. In the 1990s, after recovering from a stroke, he took up the tuba.

His hobbies included fly fishing. He also tended dozens of beehives and harvested the honey to sell.

Handy and full of the gift for persuasion, Mr. Phillips bought rundown houses and fixed them up as rental properties. “A realtor told me he’d never seen anyone with Bill’s negotiating capacity,” his wife said.

Mr. Phillips used those skills as an organizer and a relentless advocate for the arts, she added. “He was aggressive about tackling things. He got people to do things.”

He leaves his wife, Ms. Cameron-Phillips; and daughter, Gabriel Ewen Phillips, who were with him when he died.

“Robin had played several beautiful pieces on her flute for him, ending with Pachelbel’s Canon,” his daughter said. “I can’t imagine a more perfect way for him to be serenaded out.”

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