Keeping Up with the Jones : Part II

The following is a continuation of an interview with pianist Warren Jones. The first part of this conversation—in which Jones discusses how he began performing, his practicing philosophy, and what sort of encouragement he offers his student at the Manhattan school of Music—is printed in the April issue and can also be read here. Lisa Houston met Mr. Jones in his Manhattan home and asked him about everything from his choice of piano to how he approaches a new or existing collaboration with a singer.

I see that you have a Steinway. Do you have a preference on the road or a favorite kind of piano to play?</b I like American Steinways. Does it vary for different types of music, or do you prefer the Steinway across the board?

The American Steinway, to me, offers the most complex combination of possibilities. There are other pianos where you may play a composer better or more easily. But in the wide range of doing things, it’s difficult to beat a good American Steinway, as far as I’m concerned.

I remember one time I played a concert in the Myra Hess Series in Chicago at the public library where they have one of those Bosendorfer Imperials. It was a recital with a flutist, and we played the Schubert variations. And I could not have asked for a better machine to play that music. But [with] the other pieces on the program, the piano came up lacking because it just didn’t have the stuff that you wanted in the other music. But for Schubert, it had an incredible clarity and ease of attack that were great.

When you go to do a concert, are you usually given a choice of instruments?

It depends on the venue. If I am given a choice, it usually isn’t close. Pianos are such different instruments one to the other, and it usually doesn’t take me a minute or two to figure it out.

Have you ever gone to a venue and found the instrument simply not up to par to the point where you wouldn’t play it?

I had an instrument like that about three years ago, and it was lucky I was there in the afternoon. I called the management of the university where we were and the people in charge and said, “It’s not going to happen on that piano.” I think that was the only time I’ve ever had that happen. I’ve been in places where there were mechanical problems that had to be corrected before the concert—but that’s the only time I can think of where there was, literally, not any way to do it on that piano. And they found another piano.

That’s different for singers.

Unfortunately, you have your own thing, and however it turns out that day is how it turns out, especially if you’re a woman. Women are more prone to chemistry.

If you’re going to do a recital with, say, Stephanie Blythe, how does the process get started?

Stephanie and I are very collaborative about that. We first put together a body of music that each of us is interested in. We’ll each come with our lists, and then we look at where those lists intersect. We can usually find a program that works out of that. At that point, we may need some creative thinking about how to make transitions. It’s fairly well thought out, that way.

We did a recital here in New York where, to the horror of some people, Stephanie sang the Songs of Travel of Vaughan Williams which, as far as I knew, I’d never heard a woman sing them. But she really wanted to sing them because she loves the music so much. And sure enough, there’s a line in the next-to-last song . . . that makes the entire thing work where it says, “The lovers listen and the maid remembers.” So, we took the entire group of songs to be her remembrance of this man and what he did. Just that one line was the key that unlocked this entire group of songs and made it real for her.

When you start rehearsing with her, do you talk about the song?

I don’t talk much when I rehearse. And I don’t coach people when I’m performing with them. I’m not interested to do that. I suppose the best way to describe that is [that] a rehearsal is different than a coaching to me. A coaching sets up a hierarchy where one person, by nature of the event, is in a superior position to the other. That is not conducive to good music making, ultimately—because I want the rehearsal to be a thing where I’ve learned my music and the singer has learned her music, and we come together and share ideas about it. And, usually, the idea sharing is not verbal. A lot of times—with Stephanie, for example—we just have to do it a couple of times and feel what the other person is doing.

If we are really at loggerheads about something, and I can’t remember when that has happened with Stephanie, we may have to stop and talk about something. Or if there’s a place—for example, in Brahms, there are places where the way Brahms writes piano music, he forces you to take time. And a singer may not be aware of that because they’re not aware of the mechanics of the piano. A lot of composers will put something on the page that will make the singer do the same thing, like packing a phrase with a lot of words.

Most people who wrote piano music were good piano players who were aware of the mechanics of the piano. And most composers I know of also sang there own music—and they had a feeling in their throat of what it feels like to do it. Schubert, many times, would sing his own songs at a musicale. He was very aware of what went on in his own singing. And sometimes we may have to stop and a singer may say, “I just need a little more time to negotiate those notes through my passage” or something like that.

Do you have a favorite way to record?

The best recording experience I ever had was with Ruth Ann Swenson at Skywalker Ranch in California. Another place I love is the place that Håkan Hagegård built in Sweden. It’s out in the country. They have great food.

Are you involved in the mixing about where the piano is in the mix or with reverb, or do you just do your thing and let others worry about it?

It’s a little bit of both. It depends what the engineer’s like or what the producer’s like. There are some people that I’ve been in session with that I just trust; they know what they’re looking for. Recording is so difficult to discuss because there’s so little of it these days. It used to be that if you were recording for Sony, as opposed to EMI, as opposed to Decca, each one of those companies had a company sound that they wanted on the recording and they were going to engage engineers and producers to produce that sound. That’s why really good connoisseurs of those recordings can listen to it and say, “That’s a Decca recording.” That kind of thing, practically speaking, doesn’t exist any more.

My druthers is to be in an acoustically good, honest room and have the recording reproduce the room sound as much as possible. A great example is the Institute of Arts and Letters here in Manhattan up on 155th St., which is an amazing auditorium to record in. The natural sound in the room is amazing, and if the engineer and producer can capture that, they will have a great success.

Is there something you listen to that people don’t know about?

You know, honestly, I don’t listen to music that much. But I will say that I love Dolly Parton. She sings, in her niche, the way Roberta Peters sang in the sense that every person in the room believes that she is singing to them. It is the most amazingly personal communication in vast rooms. There’s just some way that she, and Roberta in her day, can work the room and make everyone feel as if they’ve had a private concert. A lot of time she is singing her own words or has written the music, so there’s a personal connection that we don’t hear in classical music.

If you’re in a masterclass with a singer and you feel that the singer is distanced from the words, what do you do about that?

One of the first things I do is to say, “What’s the song about?” And almost always, the person will tell me what the song is about in the third person. When people sing The Jewel Song [“Ah! je ris de me voir”], they say, “This is about a girl, and she’s having a party.” And I ask them to repeat it in the first person. Immediately, people start to get a connection about what they’re doing. There are very few songs, very few arias, that are told in the third person. Even in “Erlkönig,” for example, where a narrator tells the story—but even in that example, you have to actually be all four characters to sing that song.

There are also times in class where I’ll ask someone to sing and then I’ll turn to the class and ask them to give me three words, not three paragraphs, “What did you get from that?” And inevitably the singer is amazed at the feedback. That’s why I tell people, “Get together with your friends and sing to each other and give each other that kind of feedback.” It’s not meant to be mean; it’s meant to be a constructive exercise. Massenet was doing that all the time with his music. He would have focus groups. He would invite people in off the streets to watch rehearsal and ask people what they got, and then he would refine the music. That’s why Massenet is so marked up with little marks. I’m fascinated by that process.

How do you stoke the fires of all this passion and creativity?

I love what I call “mindless physical activity.” I love to chop wood. I love to work out. It’s something that gives my mind a rest, because a lot of the day my mind is going in a serious way. I love to cook. Cooking is immediate gratification. If you make a pie, you can see if it’s beautiful and you can taste and see if it’s nice. A lot of the time, I practice for two or three months, and then the result is, literally, gone in the instant that I play it. I can’t taste it or anything. I like things that have a concrete result like that.

Do you have an all-time favorite pianist?

Probably Rubinstein. I saw him one time when I was in college. He brought something on the stage that was unlike other people that I’ve seen play—a sort of humanity to it. He missed a fair number of notes that afternoon, and I didn’t care. It was not about the notes. It was about this amazingly beautiful tone . . . if you go to a singing recital, what’s the first thing you talk about? You don’t talk about staccato or ability to enunciate “e” vowels on F-sharp. That afternoon that I heard Rubinstein was what that was about. That incredibly human sound coming out of that machine.

Lisa Houston

Lisa Houston is a writer and dramatic soprano who divides her time between Berlin and Berkeley. She recently performed Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and the title role in The Last Diva on Broadway with the Leipzig Kammeroper. She can be reached at Lisahouston360@gmail.com.