I thought of him as “Forest Park” Phil, a familiar face playing his cello at Chicago Symphony concerts. Phil Blum passed away peacefully after a decade-long struggle with lymphoma. It is fitting that his public memorial on Sept. 30 be held in the place where Phil felt most comfortable, the symphony’s center stage.
Phil’s wife, Nancy, remembers the first time she saw Phil on that stage. She was a cello major at Wheaton College and found herself drawn to the cellist with “a half-sad look on his face.” She thought she could make him happy. Seven years later, she took cello lessons from Phil. She described Phil as a “horrible” teacher; so talented he couldn’t comprehend his flawless technique, let alone teach it.
Nevertheless, Phil recognized Nancy’s spirit and felt like he was reconnecting with an old friend. The couple married and took up residence in Nancy’s Forest Park “starter home” in 1980. I first met Phil around that time. He was a River Forest refugee, relieved that he no longer had to “gift wrap his garbage.” Phil loved their cozy house on Hannah and the sanctuary of their backyard, shrouded by a canopy of evergreens.
Phil may have been one of the most gifted musicians of his generation but never acted like it. He was a down-to-earth guy from the Austin neighborhood, a union member who reflected the blue-collar spirit of Forest Park. Phil liked living near the Blue Line and riding the el to rehearsals. He often said, “If I didn’t play with the CSO, I’d be pumping gas.”
As for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Phil didn’t even practice before auditioning for legendary conductor Fritz Reiner. After playing two pieces for the maestro, the 22-year-old was hired. Thus began a 54-year career.
Phil enjoyed being a team player with the cello section and never sought the spotlight. He loved traveling the world playing under the baton of Daniel Barenbohm, whom he referred to as “Danny.” In 1997, though, he received a devastating diagnosis. Doctors told him he would be lucky to live another 10 years.
Phil fooled everyone by stretching it to 13 years. He rallied over and over from near-death experiences to return to the stage. Nancy recalled how this “incredible, wonderful person wrung every ounce out of his body to create a beautiful crescendo of performances.”
Phil wasn’t only devoted to Nancy and his music. He felt very close to their cat Blackie. Blackie was deaf and endured as many health crises as Phil. After the cat passed away last year, Phil called Nancy and suggested they listen to a special piece of music to honor Blackie. On Sept. 30, a recording of this piece, Elgar’s “Nimrod Variations,” will be played at Symphony Center to honor “Forest Park” Phil. Nancy would like everyone to come.