By Vivien Schweitzer
He compares partnering soloists to playing doubles tennis. Indeed, his nuanced, insightful, and virtuosic playing has long enhanced the performances of some of the world’s greatest singers and instrumentalists.
For the pianist Warren Jones, “accompanist” is a meager description of his profession. “Collaborative pianist” better suits his role, explains Jones, whose nuanced, insightful, and virtuosic playing has long enhanced the performances of some of the world’s greatest singers and instrumentalists. He compares partnering soloists to “playing doubles tennis,” because the endeavor has to be an equal relationship. “Collaborative pianists are no longer hidden,” he says. "We have a profile, and people understand that it’s an incredibly valuable part of the whole scheme of music making.” Indeed, reviewers invariably praise Jones’s poetic insights and consummate technical skills as an essential component of a chamber performance.
Jones, 58, grew up in “a quasi rural environment” in North Carolina in a home without a record player. He didn’t hear anyone play the piano until his late teens, because his high school piano teacher was disabled and unable to perform. During lessons, “when it sounded good she would ask me ‘what does that feel like?’—encouraging me to recognize what it felt like physically and emotionally,” explains Jones.
He attended the New England Conservatory for undergraduate and graduate degrees in piano performance. Early on, however, he was certain a career as a soloist was not for him. “That’s a question of temperament. A solo piano career is an incredibly emotionally strenuous and solitary life, and I like being around people.”
After obtaining another graduate degree in piano performance from the San Francisco Conservatory, he was hired by the San Francisco Opera. He later wrote to every opera
company on the East Coast between Boston and Savannah to request an audition. Each granted him one, but his only job offer came from James Levine at the Metropolitan Opera. He worked there for ten years, simultaneously developing his career outside the house as a teacher and accompanist to a starry roster that included Marilyn Horne, Kathleen Battle, and Kiri Te Kanawa.
Unusually for a collaborative pianist, Jones often performs from memory—which of course can be risky. While playing Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise with Te Kanawa in Florida, one of her phrases “took on a sound I’d never heard before; it was just the most hair-raisingly beautiful sound and I was entirely immobilized. I couldn’t remember anything. It’s the only time in my life I’ve ever stopped in public. I just put my hands in my lap.”
Another memorable concert was with Barbara Bonney at Tanglewood, just after one of his favorite aunts had died. They performed Strauss’s “Morgen!” as an encore. “We finished and there was no sound at all: no crickets, no birds, everything was quiet. The audience just sat there and didn’t clap. We sat there for the longest time then there was some applause. The stillness in the hall that night and outside the hall is something always in my mind.”
It was at Tanglewood in 2003 that Jones met Stephanie Blythe, Musical America’s 2009 Vocalist of the Year, now a frequent collaborator. Awed by his encyclopedic knowledge of song and opera, she recalls that she “was so terrified of him that it was one of the few times I found myself utterly speechless. I think I was afraid that if I opened my mouth I would say something completely idiotic. He had, and still has, a way of coaching that makes learning like a series of light bulbs getting switched on.”
Blythe adds that Jones, who she calls “one of the most important musical influences in my life,” taught her the importance of language—beyond “just knowing how to sing a particular language with correct diction.”
This dedication to linguistic comprehension is something Jones hopes to pass on to his students at the Manhattan School of Music and the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara. He advises budding collaborative pianists who want to work with singers to gain a functional knowledge of several languages. Jones has studied French, German, and Italian; when performing Russian songs, he studies the repertoire with linguistic coaches.
Jones, who believes that training as a collaborative pianist has become “a real career possibility,” reminds his students that “if they were undertaking a solo piano career, playing the piano beautifully is the desired result of their education. But as a collaborative pianist there is so much else going on in the transaction between people on stage, whether performing a Brahms quintet or Strauss song, that playing the piano beautifully is just the entry-level skill.” Jones refers to this transaction as a “mystical communion”—a “confluence of energy and time and emotion that is going on together, not separately, where one acts and the other reacts.”
Another appreciative singer is Ruth Ann Swenson, who enthuses that Jones “can play anything. He’s one of the greatest musicians I’ve ever known. He’s easygoing and makes me feel confident and comfortable. He’s kind, extremely patient, has a great sense of humor, and I trust him completely.”
Swenson says that she tested the waters with other pianists early on, but was never at ease until working with Jones. “He has a huge knowledge of the song repertoire and a great understanding of voices. Whatever he’s suggested has always suited my voice perfectly.”
Singers appreciate Jones’s chameleon-like ability to adapt to any situation. Blythe recalls singing Giulio Caccini’s “Amarilli” several years ago with Jones playing an out-of-tune piano. His solution was to play no more than two notes at a time, “the result being the most haunting and serene version we had ever done. I answered him with the softest, clearest singing I could muster (no mean feat for me at the time) and the result was magical. I felt as if we were suspended in time—truly two voices in one.”
“I will never forget that evening,” she adds, “because it showed me all the things that a true partnership with a pianist can achieve.”
Vivien Schweitzer writes about the arts for the New York Times and other publications.