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Chosen by the music

CFA’s Ann Howard Jones inspires student singers and conductors

Shortly before a concert dress rehearsal, Ann Howard Jones is onstage surveying the scene. She calculates the ideal spacing for the forty singers. Suddenly the animated talk and laughter cease, all eyes riveted on her.

She reviews the protocol for performance night: “Put on your sophisticated, experienced faces,” she advises, half-kidding, and proceeds to warm up the singers. Peering intently through her glasses, Jones sways and nods and tosses her head with the music, expressing its power or gentleness with her whole body. Holding the baton lightly, she mouths the lyrics, smiling encouragement often. She has them make notations on their scores as they polish the piece. Later she says, “Really nice A majors, sopranos, really,” and to the whole chorus, “Go ahead and enjoy it.”

As a professor of music and director of choral activities at the School of Music, Jones conducts Boston University’s Symphonic Chorus and Chamber Chorus, which will perform Hayden’s The Creation at Symphony Hall on Monday, November 21. (Click here to read about the upcoming performance.)

Jones also administers and teaches graduate choral conducting. Under her direction, the choral program has expanded from a symphonic chorus, which she created in 1993 when she joined the faculty, to a full range of graduate choral conducting, with the inclusion of the Doctor of Musical Arts several years ago.

The young program is thriving, drawing applicants from some of the best undergraduate music schools worldwide. As it yields new doctors of music, a number are finding early career success. “Ann has completely put this school on the map as a program of choice for graduate choral conducting,” says Phyllis Hoffman (CFA’61,’67), an associate professor of music.

During the summer, Jones prepares the Boston University Tanglewood Institute (BUTI) chorus, high school students from around the world, for Institute concerts as well as for non-BUTI collaborative concerts with celebrated conductors. About a third of the BUTI students eventually matriculate at CFA. “Ann has great style and versatility,” says Patty Brown, associate director of the Tanglewood Music Center. “She knows how to tap into something in singers — she finds it within them.”

Serendipity

Music comes to Jones naturally. Her family was musical, and she says that music “grabbed ahold of me young and never let go. One doesn’t really choose music as a career — one is chosen by it.”

She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in voice and a doctorate in choral conducting at the University of Iowa and traveled to Brazil on a Fulbright. But it was a chance encounter in the early eighties that changed her life. After teaching at several colleges, she had a part-time position at the University of Georgia. The late Robert Shaw, widely considered America’s greatest choral conductor, then was director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. He and Jones met when he visited the university to work with ensembles she had helped prepare.

An enthusiastic singer who found choral singing “a great way to keep in touch with the person on the other side of the music stand,” Jones auditioned for the Atlanta Symphony and was invited not only to sing with the chorus, but also to help with conducting. As assistant conductor of choruses from 1984 to 1998, Jones had increasing responsibility, particularly as Shaw’s health began to fail.

Along with several colleagues, she conceived and established the Robert Shaw Institute. Enlisting scholarship support from participating U.S. universities, the Institute auditioned singers from all over the country to rehearse, perform, and record under Shaw’s direction near his summer home in the south of France. After Jones came to BU, she invited her mentor as guest conductor on several occasions in the mid-nineties.

At a rehearsal for a concert by the Symphonic Chorus and the Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall earlier this year, Jones perched atop a high stool overseeing her musicians. After stretching exercises and vocal warm-ups that emphasize intonation, they begin the “Ave Maria.”

“If you stop just a nickel’s worth short,” she cautions, “it’s unacceptable.” She instructs them to “count sing,” citing Shaw’s admonition that “every iteration of a number is an opportunity to improve pitch.” She leads them through a passage several times, assuring them that “this is the hardest piece on the program.” They get the glorious sound of “Stabat Mater” right where she wants it. “A fantastic attack,” she says, “a fabulous decrescendo!”

A full version of this article appeared in Bostonia. Jones conducts the BU Symphony Orcestra Monday in a performance of Haydn’s "The Creation."