Perfect Sound Forever

William Corbett-Jones

San Francisco State Honors Music Professor
by Neila Mezynski
(August 2008)

This seems to be a good time to write about William Corbett-Jones as San Francisco State University is honoring his tenure with them (since 1967) with an all-Beethoven scholarship concert series, with proceeds to benefit piano students and piano studies. The programs offer the cycle of Beethoven Sonatas, opus #2 on the Feb 24th program, and opus #10 is on the April 6th program. At the Feb 24th concert, Corbett-Jones informed the audience that "he chose the order of the Sonatas on the two programs to show the development of Beethoven's work between the early opus and the later one."

Corbett-Jones whole thrust as a concert pianist and music professor seems to revolve around wanting to show the evolution and development of a composer's work; as well as an avid interest in instilling an understanding and love for the piano and the piano repertoire. With his interest in world history and the connection to the historical derivations and influences on music, he passes on this love of knowledge and music to his students. Professor Jones states, "to educate students to become significant creators, scholars and educators capable of major contributions in our urban, national and global environment."

Elliott Dunlap, a Bay area concert pianist, reaped the benefits of Jones's philosophy while studying with him in the mid 1990's: "I was primarily a cellist in my youth and Bill taught me to love the piano repertoire and to see it not as an exploration of history but also as a process of self discovery. His knowledge of it is encyclopedic, just as his frame of reference is for history and language is." Reno concert pianist Allan Fuller remembers Jones using literary references such as ‘stentorian' to describe an octave passage in one of Fuller's lessons. A little intimidating for young Allan, I'm sure, "feelings of polar opposites but kindred spirits," he states.

Dr. Corbett-Jones is in his 70's and a more vital man would be hard to imagine. His grueling schedule would dwarf most people half his age. Jones loves to travel and his teaching and master classes have taken him all over the globe- he's been to China five times and more recently to Western China, traveled three years in a row in the Autonomous Region and has been guest professor at the Xinjiang College of the Arts and also at Yining University. He also performs and teaches master classes at the Central Conservatory in Bejing. He studied Mandarin in order to communicate with his students in China. Of course, that's not the only language he speaks- he's also fluent in German, Italian and French. That's not even mentioning the fact that he is Juilliard-trained and the recipient of a Fulbright Grant and the Doctoral Equivalency from S.F. State University in 1973.

Professor Corbett-Jones is also no stranger to the concert stage. He has performed the complete piano solo work of Chopin and Mozart and chamber music of Beethoven and Brahms; performing in the Saltzburg Chamber Music Festival and soloist with the Maggio Musicale Orchestra in Florence three times under the direction of Kurt Mazur., conductor of the New York Philharmonic. He was also a soloist with S.F. Symphony Orchestra eight times and the pianist of the famed Alma Trio for eight years. With his particular background, I always thought that Corbett-Jones had an affinity with composers such as Scarlatti, Schubert, Mozart and Hayden although he seems equally at home when performing and recording modern work such as Bartok, Stravinsky and Hindemith.

I first started attending Corbett-Jones concerts in the 1970's with Harriet Jones, a friend and student of his (no relation). I was drawn to his sincere and conversational playing and diverse programs. It was not lopsided with too many romantic works or modern pieces. His are beautifully balanced programs with a touch of obscure works thrown in for interest. I'm almost always captivated by his rolling continuation of sound; brooks and streams come to mind. I believe music scholars call it ‘the long line.' Before each piece on a program he likes to offer some history and description of the work. He's always the educator and scholar.

Students and friends alike speak almost reverently of Dr Jones's limitless knowledge of music and music history. S.F. State Professor, Inara Morgenstern, who has known Corbett-Jones for 50 years and studied with him many years ago states, "I decided the life of the musician was for me because of Bill Jones. Every time I teach my own students, I hear his echo although I could never match his gentleness and generosity nor his awe inspiring mastery and vast repertoire. He could launch into innumerable classics out of the blue. A rare gift! Generous with his knowledge, insatiably curious about everything." Student Mark Wyman offers, "He likes knowledge. He likes it for its own sake , using it as a tool to broaden his own skills and interpretations."

It would almost seem as if Jones had a photographic memory according to some of his students and friends. Pianist Eric Thompson recalls during a lesson, "Bill hadn't touched a certain piece of music for decades. He took my place at the bench, wrote in a couple of fingerings that he had been suggesting to me, then launched into the passage at full tempo." Thompson thought Bill "nailed it" after the 2nd attempt but Jones thought the 3rd worked- "there it is" he stated. Corbett-Jones says 'no' to having a photographic memory but Eric Thompson thinks "it is an uncanny interest in the subject and ability to retain whatever passes his senses once." Thompson points out that this affinity does not apply to his knowledge of modern electronics though. Join the club.

Not only do his students honor him but composers compose works dedicated to him. Some notables are Kirke Mechem ("Sonata For Piano"), John Sharpley ("Etude For the Right Hand"), Phelps Dean Witter ("Music For Piano"), and the composer I enjoy so much, Roger Nixon who wrote "24 Preludes For Piano" for Corbett-Jones. Nixon is an elegant man who usually is in the audience whether Corbett-Jones is playing one of his works or not.

Bay area pianist, Harriet Jones, related a story to me that took place in 1989 during the bay area's huge 7.1 earthquake. Along with Judy Blaylock, she was in the middle of her lesson with Bill, at his home when the earthquake took place. After being thrown around by the massive rocking and rolling, Corbett-Jones said "Well, let's get back to the lesson now." That's dedication.

We die-hard music lovers and champions of Corbett-Jones come from all over the Bay area to attend his concerts. It's not often you get to hear a performer of Professor Jones's caliber for such a nominal fee or none at all through San Francisco State's faculty concerts. I'm sure that he will continue his performances along with master classes at various university residencies around the world, but I bet it safe to assume that he won't stop teaching and giving concerts at San Francisco State any time soon. After all, he has been performing and teaching there since 1967. Why stop now?

Thanks to Terry McNeill for help with the photo

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER