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Georgia Warden

Gifted vocalist, influential teacher

Georgia Lee Warden, a lifetime resident of Claremont, died on November 3, 2015. She was 84 and still living in the home in the Russian Village that her father purchased in 1938.

She was born in 1931 at Pomona Valley Hospital to Earle Knights Bunker and Thelma Mae Looschen. Her father was in banking and her mother was a homemaker. Georgia was a lifelong member of Claremont United Church of Christ, Congregational, and was fond of telling friends that she had played the infant Jesus in the Christmas manger scene there.

She was quite active while attending Claremont High School, playing tennis, serving as song-leader and engaging in competitive roller-skating, an activity that was memorialized in family albums with photographs of her undertaking daring jumps.

Georgia began taking vocal lessons early on and by high school, her lessons with her lifelong voice coach Margery Briggs were yielding promising results. She was a real student of lieder, a German style of music consisting of romantic poems set to classical music by legendary composers. Often performed with just a single vocalist and a pianist, the genre was well suited to her soaring soprano.

Following her graduation in 1949, she enrolled in a summer orchestra program. She was playing bass in the ensemble, while a likely looking young man named Leslie “Les” Warden was playing trumpet. A romance was kindled between the two musicians and they were married in 1950, shortly before Georgia’s 19th birthday. The couple soon welcomed two sons, Christopher and Jeffrey.

Georgia and Les, who was a professional musician who played with big bands, believed it was important for his children to have a musical background. Chris recalls taking piano and trumpet lessons as a child and says he and her brother were constantly surrounded by music. Each year, they would travel to the home of fellow CUCC parishioner Dave Blanchard, who actually had a pipe organ in his home, for a Christmas sing-along.

“My brother and I would hole up in the bedroom we shared and listen to my parents warming up for choir,” Chris recalled. Jeff died at age 14 of complications from asthma, a devastating loss for the family.

Mrs. Warden began taking classes at the Claremont Colleges, followed by courses at San Bernardino State. Even as a busy young mother and student, Mrs. Warden didn’t give up her musical aspirations. When Chris was in fourth grade and Jeffrey in second, Les’ work took the family to San Francisco for three years. Georgia auditioned for the San Francisco Opera and began performing chorale work. In 1963, she performed the role of Orlinde in Wagner’s “Die Walküre.”

She won a contest at the Redlands Bowl in 1957, just in time to kick off the venue’s 35th anniversary. Her program included songs like Mozart’s “Alleluia” and “Ritorna Vincitor” from “Aida,” with her teacher Ms. Briggs at the piano. Georgia’s performance was lauded in a San Bernardino Sun article, which characterized her sound as “a voice of velvet richness in the low register and of brilliance in the coloratura.” In 1990, Georgia earned a doctorate from the Claremont Graduate School. For her thesis, she tackled the heady subject of German lieder, “Richard Strauss’ Zueignung: background and comparison of seven recordings.”

In the 1970s, Mrs. Warden became a classroom teacher at Oakmont School, followed by a post as a reading specialist at Sycamore School. Given her background, Georgia—who was heavily influenced by the Orff school of teaching—volunteered to teach music as well. The form of teaching combines movement and music during sessions that feel more like play than studying. During their early stages of instruction, Orff pupils are encouraged to make music without worrying about learning to read notes. Devotees of the teaching discipline believe the early freedom lead to greater musical enthusiasm and a faster learning curve.

The school budget didn’t allow for the purchase of many of the tools called for by Orff instruction, but Mrs. Warden was undeterred, acquiring many instruments over the years. She was particularly big on teaching the recorder, a wind instrument that is elementary in some ways but can be complex to play. She began collecting recorders, amassing dozens upon dozens over the years.

After retiring from the Claremont Unified School District in the early ‘90s, Georgia taught music at Foothill Country Day School for a number of years. “We kept kidding her, asking when she was going to get her gold watch and sit in her rocking chair, but it wasn’t going to happen,” Chris said.

Church continued to be central to the Wardens, with Georgia serving as a soprano soloist and Les singing bass with the CUCC choir for decades. In the ‘90s and early 2000s, Mrs. Warden was choir director and also, for a time, served as director of the children’s choir.

Butch Henderson, who was senior pastor for at CUCC for 20 years, came to know the Wardens, whom he called “a beautiful duo,” quite well.

“Georgia’s personality and her graciousness were as lovely as her voice. She gave both of herself and of her talents very generously,” he recalled. “She gave herself completely to anything she was involved in. She was an all-in kind of person, and always seemed so much younger than her age.”

In a recent tribute, music teacher Charlotte Van Ryswyk recalled Georgia’s mentorship as she started her on her way with directing the CUCC children’s choir. “She introduced me to the world of Orff-Schulwerk and together we figured out how to produce musicals with young kids, a stage, a piano, some fabric and many laughs,” she recalled.

Georgia also sang locally with the Ronfeld Chorale, the Claremont Symphony Orchestra, which recently awarded the chanteuse its Lifetime Achievement Award. She sang in and directed some 30 programs with the Pomona Valley Musicians Club over the years, serving as PVMC’s president from 2008 to 2010.

Mr. and Mrs. Warden enjoyed many adventures together, including traveling to perform in a Hadyn festival in Austria every year for 20 years. Earlier on they had caught the bug at a music program in Germany. Shortly after his marriage, Chris and his wife Iris, who is a native German, joined the couple in Munich near the end of that event.

It was an opportunity to meet the younger Mrs. Warden’s sizeable family, and for Georgia and Les to perform for the patriarch of their daughter-in-law’s family. “Half the town turned out for this thing,” Chris recalled. “We were in Steinwenden in Western Germany and my mom sang lieder. That stuff melts every German heart.” 

Jim Penn was Mrs. Warden’s friend and companion for the past dozen years, as well as being a fellow singer in the CUCC church choir. Ensconced in an apartment Georgia’s father had built for his mother-in-law, Mr. Penn enjoyed her company.

She had a keen sense of humor and a bit of an edge to her personality, he shared. “I’ll be honest; she was a teacher and opera singer and she did have an outside voice, which could be quite large. She was a conservative person but was also always generous to a fault. I can’t tell you how many people she helped over the years.”

She also had an endless attitude of optimism.

“In her last years, her health was failing,” Mr. Penn said. “Whenever someone would ask her how she was doing, she would always smile and say, ‘I’m doing better.”

 On November 7, members of the CUCC Choir performed “Down to the River to Pray” in memory of Mrs. Warden, while the Joyful Voices performed “There is a Balm in Gilead.”

Ms. Warden is survived by her son Chris, daughter-in-law Iris and grandchildren Stephanie, Derek and Christopher.

A memorial service is being planned for a date in January.

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