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Remembering Brian Jones

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On Saturday Trinity Church will host a memorial service for its illustrious former music director at 10:00 AM (preludes at 9:30); this promises to be a beautiful and deeply moving celebration of the life of Brian Jones, featuring choral music pre-selected by him, sung by the present Trinity Choir, The Copley Singers, and other Trinity Choir “alumni” from his years as music director, and conducted by the current music director, Colin Lynch. A reception follows in the church’s undercroft. Livestream it HERE.

Last November the world of music lost an artist of extraordinary gifts in Brian Ernest Jones, and the larger world also lost a great humanitarian, bon vivant, raconteur, and all-around mensch. A man who cherished the English language, he was also one of the earliest writers to contribute concert reviews to the new Boston Musical Intelligencer blog started in 2008, and he recruited others (including myself) to follow his lead. The arc of his multi-faceted musical career spanned half a century, and his influence extended internationally. Having investigated colleges while studying at Phillips Exeter Academy, I was already very interested in his alma mater, Oberlin College, despite Exeter’s college placement director who could respect schools outside the Ivy League but actively discouraged students from making them their top preferences. Before meeting Brian, I had gotten to know and respect three accomplished musicians and teachers who were Oberlin alumni (one, in fact, chaired the music department at Exeter), but as the first “Obie organist” I met, Brian may well have provided the crucial reinforcement I needed in my senior year to stand my ground with that college placement director. Oberlin was then unique in the country as a college paired with a conservatory of music where one might pursue a double degree on one campus and receive twin bachelor’s degrees in liberal arts and music in five years. This cross-fertilization of world-class conservatory and college, coupled with the institution’s distinction as the country’s first coeducational and racially integrated college (well before the Civil War) seemed ideal to me.

One cannot sum up such a larger-than-life figure as Brian in one word—or even a number—but the first word that springs to my mind is expansive, as it describes multiple aspects of his life. A quintessential extrovert, Brian befriended diverse people as naturally as he breathed, including those whose political persuasions and musical preferences diverged greatly from his own. His gregariousness and charisma were evident to me from the day I met him in 1980. I was an adolescent with but a single year of organ study behind me and only beginning to find my niche, but as he perceived my seriousness of purpose, his subsequent warmly insistent encouragement played a great part in my choosing a musical career.

Brian spoke with reverence and love of his formative years at Oberlin, often referring to the “Holy Trinity of Oberlin in the 1960s”: his (and later my own) organ instructor Haskell Thomson, the instructor in Dalcroze Eurhythmics, Inda Howland, and choral director Robert Fountain. His inborn musical talent was nurtured by these three especially, but he also rapturously recalled hearing many concerts by The Cleveland Orchestra, only 37 miles from Oberlin and receiving worldwide accolades under its legendary conductor George Szell. Brian paid two visits to Oberlin during my student years, sharing his views both positive and negative about changes to the campus in the intervening 20 years and taking me “organ-hopping” with him in greater Cleveland. He had rather strong tastes in architecture and organbuilding which influenced but didn’t define my own. He was dismayed with the conservatory’s fairly new primary concert organ (installed in 1974) and built uncompromisingly in the style of J. S. Bach’s time, with its low wind pressure (“shaky wind” in Brian’s words), lack of the swell shades so indispensable for organ music of the Romantic era and later, and its unequal temperament tuning which precluded the performance of music in more far-flung key signatures. While I conceded he made some good points, I adored playing Bach and other Baroque composers on an “authentic” instrument, and I countered that learning to adapt such organs to play music of many periods was an important part of an organist’s training. (We ultimately agreed to disagree about that particular organ.)

Brian and I had somewhat similar origins as the product of small New England towns within reasonably easy reach of the artistic riches of Boston, and both of us were excited to be connected with an internationally recognized center of higher education, culture, and medical and technological research. Though I had musicians on both sides of my family tree, Brian had more of an “organist pedigree” as the grandson and grandnephew of professional organists (his granduncle played for one church in Turner, Maine for over 65 years). Burning to share his passion for music, Brian was not long out of college when he secured a position teaching at Noble and Greenough School in suburban Dedham and earned his Master’s of Music degree at Boston University, studying with Jack Fisher. In due course, Brian also became Music Director of the Dedham Choral Society, an acclaimed tenure lasting nearly three decades including performances in such prestigious Boston venues as Trinity Church, Symphony Hall, Church of the Immaculate Conception, and Jordan Hall. Most musicians would have found these positions sufficiently fulfilling, but as an ardent proponent of the indispensability of music in worship, Brian also took on the post of Director of Music at Wellesley Congregational Church, providing varied choral and organ music on a weekly basis. And impressively, he still found time to maintain a regular schedule of organ recitals around New England and the U.S. He particularly enjoyed introducing audiences to the arcane but fascinating repertoire of pieces written for organ and piano duo with pianist Andrew Gordon, and the duo made a well-received recording of a number of their recital pieces.

The single most important career change in Brian’s life undoubtedly was becoming Music Director at Trinity Church in Copley Square in 1984. When I was next in touch with him and offered my congratulations, I learned that Trinity was the single position he had most aspired to since his youth. It also gradually dawned on me that this was part and parcel of his abiding, deep love for the city of Boston and its history. Sharing those sentiments, I too found it an easy decision to move here after obtaining my bachelor’s degrees: the city offered exciting opportunities for my further development as a musician. Brian continued to take an interest in that development, and I soon joined both the Dedham Choral Society and the Trinity Choir. These were exciting years in which, under his direction, I sang for the first time in choral masterpieces I had grown up with as well as others I hadn’t previously encountered: Bach’s B Minor Mass and St. John Passion, Mozart’s C Minor Mass and Solemn Vespers, Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, and the Requiems of Mozart, Brahms, Fauré, Duruflé, and Verdi. Additionally, it was a joy to discover wonderful anthems on a weekly basis, whose amazing range spanned Renaissance through living composers, music from multiple countries and embodying a great number of styles.

However diverse were the various works he selected, Brian’s approach consistently relied on bedrock musical principles: to cite a few examples, musical phrases seized the attention of connoisseurs and the general public alike by having direction, an arc rising to a high point and then receding; texts were as important as notes, and he expected us to give equal attention to both; the emotional power of very soft singing was fully comparable to the exciting roar of fortissimo climaxes (a frequent Brianism: “Oh, if only you could have heard the pianissimos George Szell got from The Cleveland Orchestra!”); and like a good orchestra player, an accomplished chorus member listened to all voice parts, not merely his/her own, in order to maintain good intonation, rhythm, and ensemble. A skilled auditioner, Brian drew many talented singers, professional and amateur from the rich pool that Boston has always offered. If this sometimes led to too many comments and questions from individual choir members, distracting others and reducing the efficiency of a given rehearsal, Brian would not hesitate to reassert his authority gently but firmly: “This is not a democracy.”

Almost as significant as his arrival at Trinity Church was his leaving it twenty years later in 2004, bequeathing a great legacy and top-notch music program to his successors and freeing time for other pursuits, not least, a succession of high-profile interim music directorships at such churches as the Cathedral of St. John in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Old South Church in Boston; Memorial Church at Harvard University; Christ Church, Cambridge; Christ Church, Alexandria, Virginia; and Parish of the Epiphany, Winchester, Massachusetts. Thanks to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’s early recognition of same-sex marriage, Brian also was able to marry his longtime partner, Michael Rocha, in a moving ceremony attended by a very large number of friends, family, professional associates, mentors, etc. His final musical legacy was the founding of The Copley Singers in 2007, then comprised virtually entirely of former Trinity Choir members who wanted to continue singing for Brian. Initially, the group simply provided a musical Christmas program for the St. Botolph Club (to which he belonged) but quickly expanded to performances, by invitation, in various locations through the year as well. Within a few short years, The Copley Singers were invited to sing at Trinity Church, Wall Street, in observance of the ten-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack; they flew to Bermuda to give a concert as part of the celebration of the 400th anniversary of the settlement of the island; and they sang in the healing service held at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross following the bombing of the 2013 Boston Marathon, with President Obama and the First Lady in attendance.

Celebrating the life of Brian Jones
Saturday . April 27th 10:00 am
[Preludes will begin at approximately 9:30.]
Trinity Church Boston, 206 Clarendon Street, Boston

A boisterous reception follows.

Parking in the Back Bay Garage, located at 85 St. James Avenue. Be sure to ask the Front Desk Associate for a parking voucher, which is good for up to 11 hours at $10.

Those unable to attend in person can live stream HERE

Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. He is Organist of First Parish Church of Weston as well as a freelance organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach. He sings with the Back Bay Chorale and serves on the Board of Directors of the Old West Organ Society.

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1 Comment [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. –> Thank you, Geoff, for that very personal and thoroughly-researched tribute to Brian! Looking forward to celebrating his life with you and many others on Saturday. . . . .

    Comment by Michael Röcha — April 25, 2024 at 10:49 am

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