A demanding and diverse role

July 25, 2008

Up on the Lobero stage, at a Music Academy master class held earlier this month, Warren Jones, like a fish in a stream, is at home in his element. Coaching five pairs of young singers and pianists, he encourages, exhorts, explains. One minute he gives gilt-edged advice to a soprano, stressing the importance of vowels in the Jewel Song from Gounod’s “Faust.” The next minute he momentarily commandeers the keyboard, demonstrating just the right articulation in the baritone aria “Deh vieni” from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” Energetic and rangy, his voice softened by an accent from his native North Carolina, Jones strides across the stage to make a point up close and personal, then joins us in the auditorium, standing in an aisle and listening with the rest of the audience on a Saturday afternoon. Part martinet and part mother hen, he comes across winningly.

“If you’re going to make mistakes,” he tells a student, “make big ones. Don’t make half mistakes.” To another, he suggests that “when you sing a phrase well — I shouldn’t say ‘right’ — that’s the time you should repeat it three or four times. Because you’re not simply repeating the phrase; you’re recreating it.” And to still another, he notes that “when you sing soft it takes more energy than when you sing loud. There’s no substitute for that kind of concentrated energy.”

Jones joined the Music Academy faculty in 1993, when he was 41 years old. He is intimately involved with three major areas — teaching piano students, grooming pianists to work with singers, and coaching singers — and despite the many other faculty members, each a specialist on his or her instrument, it’s not far-fetched to consider him the institution’s artistic heart and soul.

Responding to a comment about the impressive level of his master class singers, he noted that “probably the very biggest way that the place has changed since I came here was with the development of the all-scholarship program. When it was introduced, the level of the students jumped immediately, graphically, dramatically.

“In the case of my own class of pianists,” he continued, “I can tell you that each year that I’ve auditioned people, the people accepted in the previous year would in general not make the list for the following year. Though there have been some repeats, the level has generally leapfrogged itself every year. And this year I’m really pleased: I have two Americans, one Russian, one Korean, and two Canadians.

“Also, since I’ve been coming here, the repertory has gotten a lot wider. When I first came here, I would say there was incredibly standard repertory, but each year it becomes a little bit more towards the edge, though I still wouldn’t call it edgy. The fact is, audiences have to become accustomed to listening.”

Dubbed “the prince of American collaborative pianists” in the national press, Jones is that and much more. Arguably our country’s finest partner for many of our finest singers — the word “accompanist” is out, and is most often replaced by “collaborative artist” — Jones is a musician nonpareil. His performances, which we hear locally with the Music Academy in the summer and with Camerata Pacifica during the season, are vivid and joyful. They get straight to the etymological heart of his calling: he “plays” the piano; for him, to “play” is to work, and to work is to play.

A complete pianist, he realized early on that a solo career suited him less than a lifetime of making music with others. Today he is much in demand as a chamber musician and equally sought after as coach and collaborator for both aspiring singers and those at the pinnacle.