Preview: Singer Timothy Jones has come through cancer with instrument intact

Friday, July 02, 2004

By Andrew Druckenbrod, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Growing up in Shreveport, La., a precocious 5-year-old Timothy Jones asked for music lessons, so his parents sent him to a jazz and gospel teacher. But the nascent classical bass-baritone wasn't content once he caught a glimpse of what he really wanted.

Tony Tye, Post-Gazette
Back in form after a battle with cancer, Timothy Jones rehearses with the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble at City Theatre.
Click photo for larger image.

Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble

Conductor: Kevin Noe

Where: City Theatre, South Side.

When: 7 p.m. Saturday and July 10 and 17.

Tickets: $10-$20; 412-889-7231.

"One day we were flipping through channels on the TV, and there was a classical pianist," says Jones, who immediately told his bewildered parents that's what he wanted to be. "My dad looked at me like I had three heads."

But even though his family was struggling financially, his parents made sure Jones connected with a piano teacher in town. After he had learned piano and cello (playing the other strings, too), singing began to come to the fore. His undergraduate degree was in piano and voice at Centenary College in Shreveport, and he opted for a doctorate in voice from the University of Michigan.

Jones' predisposition to music certainly was strong. "It was innate," says Jones. His singing with the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble bears that out. Jones displays a natural affinity for the music, extracting the essence of unfamiliar works with ease. Melody lines are unaffected and the inner theatrics of texts brought out with remarkable expression, all evident when he debuted with the group in 2000.

He credits his dramatic approach to teachers who helped "free me up as a person" and who taught him how to incorporate the entire body into performances. Indeed, Jones does more than just sing when he, well, sings. His eyes, hands and everything in between join in to impart meaning. That's the case whether the music is hilarious, such as last weekend's outstanding premiere of a semi-theatrical piece by David Heuser, "Immaculate, Bored, Off-key and Vain," or sentimental, such as an expansive work from 2002 by Kevin Puts, "Einstein on Mercer Street." The expressiveness of Jones' physical mannerisms matches the fluidity of his vocal technique, helping him communicate composer intent with engaging directness.

Many who saw him perform "Einstein" were dismayed to discover Jones wasn't with the company last year. He was in the midst of a bout with cancer of the area around the sternum and the lungs, called mediastinal seminoma. Beyond the typical concern for his life, the ravaging of this area was a harsh blow for a singer. "I thought, if they open up my chest, I am never going to sing again!" he says. "There was a lot of fear there. [But] in the first meeting I had with my principal oncologist, he said, we want to cure you first, and then we want to save your career."

Jones actually ended up beating the cancer in a remarkably short time. Diagnosed in March 2003, he returned to the stage at the University of Houston (where he is a faculty member) on Sept. 10. "I was weak at the time and 45 pounds overweight, but my goal was to [make the recital]." The good news is that Jones hasn't noticed any damaging vocal effects from the chemotherapy (he ultimately never had to undergo any surgery).

Now back in shape and at full strength, the 30-something singer finds himself in the prime of his career. In addition to new music, which he supported even as an undergraduate, he continues to take operatic roles and to sing the classics. "A lot of my career is singing Bach, Handel and Mozart," he says. " 'La Boheme' is a favorite [singing Marcello or Schaunard]."

But more than anything, Jones is excited to be back with an ensemble that explores the very presentation of music. "I think Kevin Noe has a vision," he says of the PNME leader's desire to invoke histrionics and multimedia in performance. And Jones is thrilled to be a part of one of the few classical groups in the country to have a singer as a member. "It is very difficult to find," he says.

So are singers like Jones.

Timothy Jones performs in this weekend's PNME concert but is prominently featured in the July 17 finale, premiering Jeffrey Nytch's "Silences."

(Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at or 412-263-1750. )