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Singing the Praises of Ann Howard Jones

National award, rousing Elijah at Symphony Hall

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Ann Howard Jones discusses the art of conducting. Video by Devin Hahn

In her many decades in the choral world, Ann Howard Jones has had her share of transcendent moments. There was the performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in communist East Berlin and the time she conducted Benjamin Britten’s fervent War Requiem at Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross. But it is the memory of Verdi’s Requiem at Boston Symphony Hall that resonates most with the 68-year-old Jones. The performance was in 2000, a year after she had been waylaid by surgery and chemotherapy treatment for cancer. The disease took a huge toll, and although she’d been back at work for a bit, the return to her beloved Symphony Hall, with its ageless grandeur and unrivaled acoustics, marked her full-throttle return to the podium.

“I could feel myself thinking, as I put my foot on that stage, I made it. I survived,” says Jones, a College of Fine Arts professor and director of choral activities, who has been teaching since 1966. “That was exhilarating enough, and then the music was so gorgeous.”

More surgeries would follow, and the illness left the seemingly indomitable Jones grappling with dietary restrictions and an ever-present fear of the disease’s return. But these concerns don’t accompany her to the podium, where she is in top form and at the height of her long, distinguished career. She is the 2011 recipient of the American Choral Directors Association biennial Robert Shaw Award, named for her late mentor, renowned for his namesake chorale and his work with the Cleveland and Atlanta Symphony Orchestras. The award, received last month, is a poetic coda to her lifelong gratitude to her famous muse. Jones was Shaw’s assistant in Atlanta for 15 years before coming to BU. “I learned more from Mr. Shaw than I ever could have imagined,” she says.

Robert K. Dodson, director of the CFA School of Music and an adjunct professor, says he is “delighted but not surprised” that the ACDA selected Jones. “The award is a measure of her standing as one of the most influential and accomplished choral conductors in the country and recognizes the extraordinary service she has rendered to the profession and her students.” BU is lucky to have someone with her “unique and authentic artistic vision,” he says.

Fresh from that honor, Jones returned to Symphony Hall Monday evening to conduct the BU Symphony Orchestra and Symphonic Chorus in a performance of Felix Mendelssohn’s Elijah. The three-hour oratorio, a rich and vibrant depiction of the Old Testament prophet’s life, is judged by Jones to be one of the 10 greatest choral works, along with Handel’s Messiah, the Brahms Requiem, and Beethoven’s Ninth. The performance featured soloists from the School of Music, both students and faculty.

Baton or no baton, Jones cuts an arresting figure. People often remark on her faultless posture. Is it a yoga regimen? The Alexander technique? Although she swims several days a week, she draws her bearing—the expansive sweep of her shoulders, her sturdy laterals—mostly from a lifetime at the podium. “Many conductors get feeble legs from standing up all that time,” says the former Fulbright scholar, who has conducted over 20 all-state choruses. “You need to exercise the legs, and you need good muscles that support your arms. The swim stroke works that rotation motion in your back.” She begins each rehearsal by leading her singers in arm stretches and shoulder rolls. “A singer is like an athlete,” she tells them. “Everything is engaged.” And conducting is heavy-duty physical work. “I have core strength just by nature,” she says. “Here I am, still going at it hard.”

A handsome woman with cropped white hair who favors simple, tailored clothing, Jones possesses a gravitas that commands students’ respect and a playfulness that commands their affection. In 2002 she offered an International Federation for Choral Music seminar titled The Responsibility of the Conductor, which provides a shorthand for her rigorous but compassionate style. She urged choral conductors to “talk less, listen and sing more, reinforce positively, strive for beautiful, expressive, and healthy singing.”

Cajoling a more focused, soulful sound from her singers in rehearsal, Jones quotes Shaw: “Make tempo. The tempo has to be in you.” She didn’t come by these pretexts casually. She has been honing her craft since her student days in Iowa, and her apprenticeship with the uncompromising Shaw.

Iowa’s Harold Hill
Long before music became her vocation, it was a source of comfort, synonymous with the joys of family and home. The only girl among four siblings, she grew up in rural Iowa with a mother who was the town wedding singer, a father with a weighty baritone voice, and a grandfather who entertained his grandchildren on Sundays by sitting at the piano making up songs. “Everyone in my family is musical, but they’re amateur,” says Jones, who evolved into what she calls a “utility instrumentalist,” managing to play whatever the school band required. Her first instrument was the trumpet, impulsively selected from a heap of smelly instruments that spilled out from the trunk of one Mr. Parkinson, Iowa’s own itinerant Harold Hill. “I bet that trumpet hadn’t been cleaned in a lifetime,” she says, recalling being handed an alto clarinet when the high school trumpet section reached its quota: “They knew I could handle it.” The young Jones also sang—alto, always a harmony part—and was valued as a piano accompanist. “My first accompanist job was the men’s glee club—one girl in the room besides the teacher,” she says. “I just had to be superior to all those boys.”

After earning a bachelor’s, a master’s, and a doctoral degree in music at the University of Iowa, her first job was teaching music at a community college in California. “I was engaged to my husband-to-be and thought, I’ll do this for a year,” says Jones, who’d never ventured west of the Missouri River. She had majored in vocal performance and music education; not only were there no degrees in conducting, but at the time she just assumed that a conducting career was out of her reach. “I was prepared to be a music teacher,” she says. “That’s what I thought people did when they studied music.”

This was especially true for women. Jones doesn’t quite understand why there are so few women choral conductors outside of high schools. “I don’t know if I can answer the question,” she says, shaking her head. “It’s probably the same thing as in the higher levels of anything. Sometimes it’s a glass ceiling, sometimes it’s gender bias, sometimes it’s we won’t invest in you because you’re going to have a child.” She consistently encounters far more men than women in her graduate conducting classes. “Sometimes it’s a woman’s choice,” she says. “The hours are crazy. There’s a certain strength involved. One has to be willing to open oneself in front of a lot of people; it’s pretty demonstrative.” But conducting isn’t about power; to her, a successful conductor needs these gender-neutral traits: “a spectacular ear, a spectacular musical imagination, and the ability to get the people in front of you to do what you want.” The time demands are huge, but “the life of an academic musician is pretty civilized,” she says. She has been married for 46 years “to the same man,” a now-retired college administrator.

Back when she learned how to conduct, the discipline was honed through observation and imitation. She’s seen her share of flamboyant characters and their theatrical gesticulations, but for herself, Jones leans toward conductorial restraint. She began at the podium as an apprentice, but these days, she says, there is a pedagogy of conducting: “We know which gestures are effective; the basics are there to be taught.”

Before Jones arrived at BU in 1993, she says, choral music here was almost an afterthought. If CFA wanted to do a Mozart Requiem, an easel was put out on the building’s sidewalk urging singers to sign on. On New Year’s Day that year Shaw told her to expect a call from BU: “They’re going to offer you a job.” When she asked his advice, he responded, “You’ll take it.’” After a “not terribly successful” tryout, she recalls, she was hired. She signed on with the tacit understanding that at that time BU was “a solo place,” geared toward grooming opera singers. “I started only with a symphonic chorus. There was a great orchestra at BU and I thought, we can showcase a chorus with a big orchestra faster than we can get a small choir finessed to the finest detail. For a year all we did was symphonic chorus, and then the faculty said, don’t you think students could benefit from a smaller chorus, and I said yes. I didn’t even have to push it.” Now Jones conducts several chamber choruses and supervises student conductors for the Concert Chorus and Women’s Chorale.

Summers Jones heads for the Berkshires to conduct gifted high school students in the Young Artists Vocal Program Chorus at BU’s Tanglewood Institute. “I love working with Ann and am proud to claim her as a beloved friend and colleague,” says BUTI director Phyllis Hoffman (CFA’61,’67), who credits Jones in large part for the vocal program’s far-reaching reputation for excellence. Jones, says Hoffman, who is also a CFA professor, offers a winning mix of challenging repertory and inspirational leadership. Students agree. “Dr. Jones is fabulous!” wrote one in her evaluation. “She’s inspiring, demanding, and dedicated. This is the best chorus I’ve ever been in.” Dragging themselves to rehearsal and finding Jones all smiles and full of energy, they’ve been known to say, “I just had to give in; I couldn’t resist her.” One BUTI vocalist said Jones taught her to love choral music, others have praised her as “a genius,” “fantastic,” and unrivaled in her passion and dedication to her art.

Jones has a winning way with students, which explains why the connection endures long after they leave BU or BUTI. “It’s astounding how that works,” she says. “There are so many students, and I’ll be somewhere, like the Dallas airport, and someone will come up to me and say, ‘Are you Ann Jones? I sang in a state chorus you conducted in 1965.’ One can have that impact on a student,” Describing the conductor-student relationship as “intimate but not personal,” she is demanding—of herself as well as her singers—and at times resorts to tough love. As she puts it, “I’ll do anything to get you the sound that’s right, so you may as well just do it.”

Putting BU on the musical map
Along with David Hoose, charismatic director of orchestral activities and a CFA professor, Jones has put BU on the map, musically, with twice yearly Symphony Hall concerts showcasing the Symphonic Chorus and the Symphony Orchestra. Jones is a great admirer of Hoose, who is on sabbatical this year. “We are more than just casual colleagues,” she says. “His gifts are great and I admire him enormously.”

At the same time that the quality of the music has soared, attendance at campus concerts has gone down, which perplexes Jones. “When I first came here you had to have a ticket to the Tsai auditorium; it was overflowing for every orchestra concert.” What’s changed? “To blame the culture seems like a cop out,” she says. “At one point the chorus had 220 singers who came from all over campus—faculty, secretaries, many nonmajors. Now we have 120. People are busy, they don’t have enough leisure.”

When it comes to discussing her craft, the unpretentious Jones bounces easily from the sublime to the quotidian. She can wax poetic over singing Mahler’s Eighth, the “Symphony of a Thousand,” at Carnegie Hall: “The amount of sound is so visceral it shakes you to your boots.” A few breaths later she is bonding over shoes: “At the podium it’s flats only. I can’t find myself in a position where I’m going to throw myself off balance.” A conductor friend once ventured to the podium in new heels and fell flat on her face. There are other occupational hazards. For one, it’s hard to tune music out. “People say when they come to my house, ‘I’m surprised you don’t have music playing,’ and I say, ‘Let’s think about that for a minute. Music equals work.’” An off-key note or a flubbed phrase are like fingernails on a blackboard. She loves jazz and show tunes and belting out standards with her brothers, but “we don’t sing wrong notes,” she says.

Also inescapable is that when Jones sees a performance she’s glued to the conductor. “Sometimes it keeps me from hearing as well as I wish, especially if the conductor is very quirky or things aren’t going that well.” A bad sign of that is “if the downbeat comes, and everyone looks at the pianist or first violinist and not the conductor.”

Monday’s Symphony Hall concert afforded BU vocalists the chance to sing a choral work scored for 100 voices and an 85-piece orchestra, and revel in the acoustics of Jones’ favorite concert hall. And she’s been around. What is it about Symphony Hall? “It’s a classic shoebox shape with a very high, unimpeded ceiling,” she says. “There’s nothing in the way, and the surfaces are all receptive and reflective. Acoustical surfaces can eat the sound, but these surfaces are happy to have the sound come at them and they reflect it beautifully. It’s tall like Carnegie Hall, but long. And the sounds that goes out into the hall is so beautifully collected.”

One of her most “goose bumpy” moments was quiet—silent, in fact. It was the conclusion of Britten’s War Requiem. “Of course the piece is extremely dramatic and wrenching, and when it was over, with the chorus’ cadences in F sharp major with bases on low F sharp—as that stops, I didn’t think about how long I would stand there without moving a muscle.” That profound silence, eventually pierced by “some fool” who decided it was time to clap, still reverberates. “I think,” says Jones, sucking in her breath, “I could still be standing there.”

For Jones, the podium is a place where pain, loss, and even time are obliterated; there is only the music.

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