1985 was the three-hundredth anniversary of the births of J.S. Bach, Handel, and Domenico Scarlatti, as well as the four-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Heinrich Schütz. To commemorate these important events, the Johannesburg Bach Choir gave its first performance of Bach’s vast St Matthew Passion in the City Hall at Easter. Eberhard Künkel conducted and also played the continuo harpsichord and was praised by the critics for his direction of the large musical forces.
Writing in the Star, Roland Solomon described the choir’s singing as “expressive”. He continued:
“The St Matthew Passion is one of the monumental works from Bach’s Leipzig period (1723-1750) and is a prime example of his mature style. It calls for large musical forces, being scored for double chorus and orchestra, organ and harpsichord continuo, unison choir of boy sopranos (in this performance girls from Roedean) and six soloists. The Bach Choir, celebrating its 21st birthday and Bach’s 300th birthday, gave a most creditable performance. The work includes some of Bach’s most majestic chorales and in these the Bach Choir was excellent.”
In October the Johannesburg Bach Choir joined with other choirs to sing Handel’s Messiah at the invitation of Weiss Doubell at the National Eistedfodd held in Roodepoort.
A second concert was given in the City Hall in November and conducted by Künkel, was described as a `Baroque Anniversary Concert’ and included works by Schütz, Bach, Handel and Scarlatti.
Also in November 1985, the Johannesburg Bach Choir joined with the SABC Choir, the National Symphony Orchestra and the PACT Symphony Orchestra in a Gala performance of Mahler’s `Resurrection’ Symphony (No. 2). A performance was given in the State Theatre in Pretoria and repeated in the Johannesburg City Hall. The visiting American conductor and Mahler specialist Richard Dufallo conducted the concerts, with vocal soloists Mimi Coertse and Angelica Novak.
The preparations and performances of this work caused great excitement and enthusiasm among concert-goers and critics alike. The combined orchestras and choirs numbered 360, and the stage of the Johannesburg City Hall was enlarged to accommodate all the performers. Both the Johannesburg and Pretoria concerts were sold out and critics and audiences were highly appreciative _ the SABC announcing that the concert would become an annual event. Margaret Nabarro writing in the Star stated:
“Every participant and all planners deserve full credit for mounting such a wonderful performance of a great but rarely heard symphony.”
An interesting note in the programme reads: “Watch the bleep _this is not the time to clash with the music, please switch off your digital watch”.
1985 was a good year for the choir’s finances as the loss from the previous year was wiped out by a surplus of R4735 giving the choir funds of R12,576.
The choir made a small profit of R1423 from its own concerts and received fees for its participation in the Mahler and Messiah concerts. There was also R1000 from commercial sponsors and a small grant from the Johannesburg City Council for the choir’s activities in supporting Johannesburg’s centenary year.
The Johannesburg Bach Choir performed three times at the Johannesburg City Hall during 1986. In June the choir sang Bach’s Mass in B minor, conducted by Dr Künkel, with soloists Bronwen Basson, Susan Braatvedt, Sjoerd Beute and Andreas Haller. Richard Cock played the organ continuo and Leif Hansen was the concertmaster. Tickets cost R14, R10 and R7-50 each. This concert attracted a large audience and a profit of R1359 was made.
In October, the Bach Choir and the SABC Choir combined to sing Beethoven’s `Choral Symphony’, No. 9 in D minor, under the baton of Gabor Ötvös, the Hungarian-born conductor, as part of the National Symphony Orchestra’s third symphony season.
In November, the Bach Choir presented the following programme with Eberhard Künkel conducting:
Missa Brevis in D Mozart
Bassoon Concerto in B flat Mozart
(soloist Jos de Groen)
`Laudate Dominum’ Mozart
from the Vespere Solemnes
Cantata No. 72 J.S. Bach
`Alles nur nach Gottes Willen’
Four Motets for the season of Christmas Poulenc
While the music critics were fairly lukewarm about the earlier performance of the B minor Mass, they were quite appreciative of the choir’s singing in this concert.
The unaccompanied singing of the Poulenc motets was described as follows:
“… the large soprano section maintained its standard of controlled well-pitched singing. Cadential endings and major and minor triads were clear and delightful.”
The printed programme, which cost R1-00, informed the reader that “Mozart’s `Laudate Dominum’ was included in the recent wedding of Prince Andrew and Miss Sarah Ferguson”.
Despite the attractive and varied musical items, there was a financial loss of R834 on the concert, although this would have been more than made up by the contributions of sponsors of the Johannesburg Bach Choir:
The Anglo American and De Beers Chairman’s Fund
Barclays National Bank
Vita Force Health Products
Sponsors were offered boxes in the concert hall at choir performances.
The minutes of the Bach Choir’s AGM show that there were 145 members and that 105 were active singing members. The choir’s much-respected treasurer, Jill Ackerley, resigned, to be replaced by David Kinghorn, while Reiner Fossati was elected to the committee as bass representative. Ken Fuller remained as chairman.
Also of musical importance at this time was the merger between the National Symphony Orchestra and the PACT Orchestra to form the National Orchestra.
The choir’s first concert on 18 May 1987 was devoted solely to Schubert, doubtless the influence of the choirmaster and conductor, Dr Eberhard Künkel. The programme consisted of the cantata `Miriams Siegesang’ (Miriam’s Song of Triumph), scored for solo mezzo-soprano, mixed choir and piano. The soloist was Sandra Nel. This was followed by Schubert’s Symphony No. 3 in D major. Then came the short choral work `Heilig Heilig’ from Schubert’s German Mass in D and the Mass No. 5 in A flat with soloists Tersia Potgieter (soprano), Sandra Nel (contralto), Pieter Marais (tenor), Johann Botha (bass).
Conductor, choir and soloists were commended by music critic Margaret Nabarro. Under the headline:
“Nel sets the tone
…accompanied on the piano with choral backing, Nel’s rich mezzo voice was heard to good account. Künkel is an excellent choirmaster and choral entries and diction were good. Concerning the Mass in A flat, the most moving section was the Sanctus. Künkel had a good feel for the massed chorus work and the Agnus Dei and Amen were excellent. This was a polished choral presentation and an interesting, even if too long, programme.”
In July, performances of Carmina Burana were given by the National Orchestra in the Johannesburg City Hall and the State Theatre Pretoria conducted by Enrique Garcia-Asensio. The Johannesburg Bach Choir joined with the Pretoria Bach Choir, the Pretoria Ad Musicum Choir and members of the Wits and RAU choirs.
In October, the Johannesburg Bach Choir presented an unaccompanied concert in the City Hall, conducted by Eberhard Künkel.
The programme consisted of works by Schütz, J.S. Bach and Poulenc, all from the choir’s repertoire.
In November, the choir once again joined forces with the National Orchestra to sing Beethoven’s `Choral Symphony’ with the SABC Choir in Johannesburg and Pretoria, the conductor being Wolfgang Bothe, one of the many guest conductors of the National Orchestra.
The choir had been very active during 1987 with six public performances, but its own concerts were not as well supported as expected and a financial loss of R9058 was made. This was partially compensated by fees for performing with the National Orchestra.
In contrast to previous years, the choir presented only one concert in 1988. This was Mozart’s Requiem, performed in May in the Johannesburg City Hall under the baton of Dr Künkel. The concert was well attended and the singing of the choir and soloists pleased the critics and audience alike. A satisfactory surplus on the concert account amounted to R4025.
In July, some 40 members of the Bach Choir transferred their talents to the stage of the Roodepoort City Opera to take part as the chorus in Beethoven’s opera Fidelio, presented in German. They were joined by members of the Welsh Male Choir of South Africa, the Randburg Male Voice Choir and the Roodepoort City Opera Chorus.
This was the first performance of Fidelio in the Transvaal and Weiss Doubell, the conductor, had gathered an impressive cast among whom were Marita Napier, Øystein Liltved, Hans van Heerden, George Kok and Werner Nel. The critics were very supportive and some members of the Bach Choir enjoyed the opportunity of acting as well as singing.
In November the Johannesburg Bach Choir joined with the SABC Choir to sing, in Russian, the cantata `Alexander Nevsky’ by Prokofiev, conducted by Paul Capolongo. The music was first written at the request of the eminent Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein for the film of the same name. When the film was released in 1938, the enthusiastic reception of the music prompted Prokofiev to arrange it for mezzo-soprano solo, choir and orchestra.
The Johannesburg Bach Choir had survived for twenty-five years and a suitable anniversary concert was given in the City Hall in May. The varied programme, conducted by Eberhard Künkel was:
Motet No. 6, `Lobet den Herrn’ J.S. Bach
Cantata No. 150, `Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich’ J.S. Bach
Four chorales from various works J.S. Bach
Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 J.S. Bach
Divertimento in D major for strings Mozart
Hymn to St Cecilia Britten
In October the choir combined with the SABC Choir in performances of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis as part of the National Orchestra’s symphony season. The conductor was Reinhard Schwartz. In November, Gabor Ötvös conducted both choirs in two performances of Mahler’s `Resurrection’ Symphony.
Bach Choir members whose names appeared in the programme
of the 25th Anniversary Concert
Sopranos Sopranos Tenors
Jill Ackerley Barbara Thorpe Felix Ernst
Barbara Anderson Ianthe van der Walt Bill Henderson
Rixa Beutel Karen von Loeper Peter Kerr
Colleen Blowe Pamela Werrell Johannes Leichter
Veronica Boniface Kathy Whiteley Brian Loveday
Almut Britz Kirstin Wilkens Donald Macey
Deirdre Campbell Herwig Martinek
Anne Campbell Altos Peter Praschma
Ildiko Cannon Fiona Andrews Geoffrey Price
Norma Chislett Sonnie Brauer David Thorpe
Rosemary Clarke Pat Christie Stephen Whiteley
Linda de Villiers Judy Cousins Heinrich Wichern
Modesta Doruyter Margriet de Jong Werner Witschi
Carla Ernst Karin De Klerk John Woodward
Doreen Every Jean Denyer
Angele Grant Monika Fletcher Basses
Jean Greig Inge Fuller Martin Behr
Hilary Groves Yvonne Garson Henry Blagden
Adriana Harvey Sue Harris Peter Blowe
Judith Hawarden Jean Hart Graham Bodman
Frances Henderson Yoka Hartog Robert Charlton
Ishbel Hingle Rita Hefftner Leigh Evans
Heike Hofmeyer Ann Henderson Reiner Fossati
Angelike Illman Laïla Hugow Ken Fuller
Simone Keulen Jenepher James Peter Hart
Mariette Künkel Sarah Leybourne Rob Hartog
Elizabeth Macey Kathleen Leon Bernard Hefftner
Margie Midgley Caroline McDonald Bill Ingram
Jeanne McKie-Thomson Hanna Niederheitmann David Kinghorn
Zerilda Nel Riana Oosthuizen Roelof Kunst
Maria Neumuller Sheila Parram Richard Lyne
Anna Ramsay Joy Sadler Mike Martinson
Beth Reynolds Hildegard Stielau Rodney Nicholson
Inge Ritti Linda Toms David Sadler
Gabrielle Schlosser Sophie Turner Michael Sipser
Alison Smart Roberta Welch Norman Turner
Anne Stephenson Ingeborg Wollbrandt Francois van der Walt
Some sort of malaise seemed to afflict the Johannesburg Bach Choir in 1990. Perhaps it started after the choir’s 25th Anniversary concert in May 1989, for which the management team had high hopes, but which was, according to some reports, not well performed and which resulted in a loss of R2300.
The committee minutes reflected the following concerns:
• irregular attendance at rehearsals;
• choir members losing interest in the works being performed and singing standards falling;
• membership declining, especially sopranos and tenors;
• general lack of enthusiasm among members;
• many performances with other groups may have eroded the choir’s identity. Although the choir had performed publicly three times in 1989, only one Bach Choir concert had been given.
To add to the perceived problems, St Katharine’s School, Parktown, where the choir rehearsed each Monday night, decided to raise its fees to an unaffordable level. St Katharine’s was a very suitable location for members and had excellent facilities, but a new venue had to be found.
The committee embarked on a recruiting drive by requesting members to introduce suitably musical persons and decided to get tough with those members who frequently missed rehearsals. The choirmaster urged members to do their musical homework and encouraged sections to rehearse separately. Fortunately St Katharine’s had two pianos in different areas so it was possible for tenors and basses to learn in one hall and sopranos and altos in another, with all sections combining after a tea break.
More serious were the committee deliberations to replace the choir-master. Having performed recently with the SABC Choir, Bach Choir members had frequently experienced the dynamic personality of the SABC Choir director, Richard Cock, who usually rehearsed both choirs together, before concerts. Unfavourable comparisons, not always free from personal bias, were made between Richard Cock and Eberhard Künkel. There is no doubt that Künkel was a thoroughly professional and accomplished choir director, but he seemed unable to motivate the singers as in the past.
Eventually, after much soul-searching, the committee came to the conclusion that a change in choirmaster was necessary. The matter was discussed with Künkel, who graciously accepted the situation, and agreed to train the choir and conduct a concert in June.
The following works were performed in the Johannesburg City Hall:
Lutheran Mass in G J.S. Bach
Concerto for oboe d’amore in A J.S. Bach
Missa Brevis in D Mozart
The vocal soloists were Gwynneth Lloyd, Margi Nel, Dana de Waal and Walter Visagie. The oboe d’amore soloist was Peter Jaspan of the National Orchestra.
This mixed choral and orchestral programme was intended to appeal to a wide range of musical tastes to attract a large audience.
Choirmasters are not exactly thick on the ground in South Africa and choirmasters with charisma, which is what the Bach Choir thought it needed, are as rare as hen’s teeth. After many enquiries, the committee found what they were looking for in the person of Colin Yorke, who had recently arrived in Johannesburg to take the position of senior music programme producer with the SABC and Radio Allegro. Yorke, with the musical qualifications MMUS, FLSM and LRAM, was born in Cape Town and studied in London at the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal School of Church Music where he was appointed choirmaster. He also conducted the Jubilate Singers and the Sebastian Orchestra. Before confirming his appointment, Bach Choir committee members attended a rehearsal of the Wits Choir, which Yorke was conducting, and were suitably impressed. Colin Yorke’s confident personality, musical knowledge and enthusiasm quickly earned him the respect of choir members. He also encouraged some student members of the Wits Choir to join the Bach Choir and introduced Craig Tocher, a very accomplished pianist, as accompanist. The team of Yorke and Tocher added much energy and enjoyment to Bach Choir rehearsals.
In November Colin Yorke conducted his first concert with the Bach Choir and orchestra in the Johannesburg City Hall. The programme consisted of the Fantasia on Christmas Carols by Vaughan Williams, the `St Nicholas’ Mass and the Te Deum by Haydn and the `St Paul Suite’ for Strings by Holst. The critics were very complimentary. Michael Traub of the Citizen wrote under the headline:
Conductor Colin Yorke obviously sets great store by choral sophistication for under his baton, the Johannesburg Bach Choir not only achieved precision of ensemble, but also showed a healthy respect for the printed dynamic markings.”
Davis Hoenigsburg wrote:
“Sparkling and energetic concert. . . this is a choral sound that is most pleasing, controlled and secure, the choir sings with a great range of dynamic contrast and effortlessly so.”
While Colin Yorke’s arrival had improved the morale and singing skills of the Johannesburg Bach Choir, more members were still required, as indicated by a notice in the concert programme: “The choir needs twenty new members for its next concert.”
Two hundred years earlier, on 5 December 1791, Mozart died, leaving his famous Requiem uncompleted. To commemorate this musical genius, the Johannesburg Bach Choir gave an all-Mozart concert in May in the City Hall conducted by Colin Yorke. The programme consisted of the Mass in C minor, the Motet `Ave Verum Corpus’, and the piano concerto No. 9 in E flat. Vocal soloists were Lisa-Jean Lorenz, Renette Bouwer, Johan de Bruin and John Fletcher. The pianist was an eighteen-year old local girl, Petronel Malan, who was described by one critic as “a truly gifted and attractive performer”, although another reviewer wrote that her interpretation was “emotionally shallow”. There was no doubt that the packed audience greatly enjoyed the singing and piano playing.
In September, the choir joined other singers at the opening of the annual Eisteddfod festival in Roodepoort to repeat Mozart’s Mass in C minor, this time conducted by Weiss Doubell.
For their second concert in 1991, the choir performed Bach’s Mass in B minor in the City Hall on 18 November with Colin Yorke conducting.
Pridwin School in Melrose had once again kindly offered its school hall as a temporary rehearsal venue _ the choir had first rehearsed there in 1969. In 1991, the school hall was also the school dining-room, which meant that before choir rehearsals could start, the heavy dining tables and benches had to be moved to accommodate choir members. After rehearsals, the furniture had to be shifted back to its original position, a task not enjoyed by the male singers. After a short time, the choir was fortunate to discover Parkview Senior School and started rehearsing there, initially for the weekly remuneration of the caretaker.
At the annual general meeting held in April, the chairman, Ken Fuller, was able to report favourably on the status of the choir. Although small losses were still being made on concerts, there was support from sponsors and fees from singing with the National Orchestra. The records show that the choir had a bank balance of R32,372, but the committee deemed it prudent to raise the members’ yearly subscription from R30 to R40. As usual the last rehearsal of the year turned into a Christmas party with cakes and mince pies provided by members. Some light-hearted entertainment about the assumed life of J.S. Bach was acted out by the committee (the hall at Parkview School had a stage) and Colin Yorke tested members’ knowledge with a musical quiz.
With the headline “Yorke inspires Bach Choir to new heights”, Paul Boekkooi, music critic of the Star, gave a complimentary review of the Johannesburg Bach Choir’s first concert of the year, performed at the Johannesburg City Hall in May. The programme consisted of Fauré’s Requiem, Poulenc’s Organ Concerto in G minor with soloist Wim Viljoen, and Haydn’s `Nelson’ Mass. The vocal soloists were Lisa-Jean Lorenz, Ronelle Brand, Malcolm Chalmers and André Howard. Boekkooi ended his review:
“Colin Yorke, in the space of two years, has built up the Johannesburg Bach Choir to an excellent level. There is a lot of honesty and inspiration that emanates from him.”
Records showed that this concert cost R21,147 to mount with a resulting loss of R683.
In August the choir presented an all-Brahms concert conducted by Colin Yorke, consisting of the Requiem and the Double Concerto in A minor for violin and cello, with soloists Charlotte Potgieter, violin and Clara Hooyberg, cello. The two vocal soloists were Lisa-Jean Lorenz and André Howard. The cost of hiring the orchestral musicians for the Brahms orchestra plus the four soloists made it an expensive concert and, in order to reduce costs, the choir experimented with one pre-concert rehearsal with orchestra and soloists instead of the usual two. While the Brahms concert returned a surplus of R490, it was felt that for future concerts, two orchestral rehearsals were essential to ensure a confident performance by the singers.
The choir’s last outing in 1991 was to sing the Te Deum by Berlioz with the combined Transvaal Philharmonic Orchestra (previously the PACT orchestra) and the National Orchestra, conducted by Gabor Ötvös. The Bach Choir joined the SABC Choir and the Auckland Park Preparatory School girls’ choir. The concert was performed in Johannesburg and Pretoria and marked the farewell to Gabor Ötvös, who was principal conductor to both orchestras. The Johannesburg performance was broadcast live, while that in Pretoria was televised live.
During the year, the choir had enrolled 15 new singers and the number of members totalled 102. Choir funds had increased by R7000. There was some criticism about the ladies’ concert dress which consisted of long black skirts and plain white blouses. The plainness of the blouses caused some unhappiness and a subcommittee was formed to recommend a new, more decorative design.
In the history of the Johannesburg Bach Choir, there are some concerts that remain in the memory as outstanding performances _ the first time the B minor Mass was sung in 1976, and the Mozart Requiem conducted by John Mitchell in 1978, to name only two. In May 1993, the choir performed Mendelssohn’s Oratorio Elijah which proved to be a splendid accomplishment. John Fletcher sang the role of Elijah with great conviction. The other soloists, who were in top form, were Sally du Randt (soprano), Margi Nel (alto), and Kobie van Rensburg (tenor). Also in top form was conductor, Colin Yorke, and the orchestra led by Annie Kossmann. Possibly because of the drama of the choruses or the potency of the text, the choir became inspired by the work and sang accordingly. Writing in the Star, the critic Paul Boekkooi said:
“Mendelssohn’s Elijah, in the right hands, is a masterpiece and Johannesburg audiences who follow their Bach Choir concerts were tonight reminded of this unmistakable fact…this was a wonderful opportunity to salute the choir’s spirit and enterprise.”
In August, Colin Yorke was forced to relinquish his duties as choirmaster due to his radio work, but continued to act as conductor. The task of rehearsing and training the choir was accepted by the accompanist Craig Tocher.
In October, the choir and orchestra gave another City Hall concert, consisting of works by Bach and Handel. The choir sang Bach’s Magnificat and Handel’s four `Coronation’ Anthems. Craig Tocher was the soloist in Handel’s Organ Concerto in F. This concert was not as well attended as expected and resulted in a loss of R2000.
During 1994, the Johannesburg Bach Choir celebrated thirty years of existence, gave two concerts in the Johannesburg City Hall and lost the services of its choirmaster, conductor and chairman.
Choirmaster Craig Tocher obtained a scholarship to study in America. He was replaced by Shirley Woods, who many years earlier had accompanied the choir at rehearsals. Shirley was now an established piano and singing teacher, and had trained a church choir, so was well suited to take over as choirmaster.
Colin Yorke conducted the first concert on 21 March, which consisted of Mozart’s Requiem, the Magnificat by Pergolesi and the Serenade for String Orchestra by Dag Wiren. Ticket prices were R27-50 and R17-50, the programme cost R3-00. The concert was well attended and a surplus of R3500 was recorded.
Shortly after this concert, Colin Yorke announced with regret that he would be unable to continue, as he wanted to return to London.
The choir had planned to perform Bach’s Christmas Oratorio in November as a thirtieth anniversary concert and rehearsals started under Shirley Woods before a new conductor was found.
Getting an experienced choral conductor at short notice was almost impossible, so the choir was very fortunate when Professor Douglas Reid, the head of the music at UNISA, made himself available.
Douglas Reid, far from being solely an academic, was a practising choral conductor and had recently formed the UNISA Choir and Orchestra. He was a graduate of the universities of the Witwatersrand, Cambridge and Cape Town. He had previously conducted the Wits University Choir and opera productions there, as well as the St Stithian’s Singers. Some members of the choir would have rehearsed Carmina Burana under Douglas Reid in 1981 when the Johannesburg Bach Choir and St Stithian’s Singers joined together in performances conducted by Maurice Handford.
At the Annual General Meeting held on 20 June, Ken Fuller, the Chairman, reported on the state of the choir as follows:
• There were 110 singing members
• 73 were present at the AGM
• The choir’s funds amounted to R64,000. Although a loss of R6000 had been sustained on the 1993 concerts, this amount had been recouped from sponsor support
• The departure of Colin Yorke and Craig Tocher was noted with regret and both were thanked for their contributions to the choir’s musical achievements
• Members of the choir were informed of the appointment of Professor Douglas Reid.
The Chairman advised members of his decision to resign for business and personal reasons. He had occupied the chair since 1974 and felt that the direction of the choir should now pass to another.
The meeting elected the following members to the committee:
Chairman David Kinghorn
Treasurer Stephen Whiteley
Secretary Kathy Whiteley
Membership Secretary Inge Fuller
Soprano Representatives Pam Werrell,
Alto Representatives Roberta Welch, Anne Henderson,
Tenor Representatives Don Macey,
Bass Representatives Reiner Fossati,
The new Chairman expressed the thanks of the Choir to Ken Fuller, who was later presented with piano scores of some of J.S. Bach’s keyboard music.
Douglas Reid conducted the thirtieth anniversary concert, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, performed in the Johannesburg City Hall on 14 November. Vocal soloists were Hilary Falkow-Friedland (soprano), Margi Nel (contralto), Wilhelm Theunissen (tenor) and Eric Visser (bass).
Paul Boekkooi, writing in the Johannesburg Star, described the occasion as:
“Promising first concert for Douglas Reid
The crispness in attack and overall tonal variety, resonance and balance has improved considerably.”
The concert was well attended and a profit of R6000 was made.
There was some dissatisfaction with the administration of the Johannesburg City Hall. Half an hour before the concert was due to start it was discovered that too few seats had been placed in the hall for the audience and the City Hall staff were not available to bring in extra chairs. The problem was solved by the male members of the choir in their shirtsleeves. This unaccustomed exercise no doubt warmed them up admirably for their singing. The hall where the after-concert party was held had not been cleaned and the underground parking was unsatisfactory. A letter of complaint was addressed to the City Hall requesting a refund for poor service.
Singing in the New South Africa
The previous year saw the first all-race democratic elections in South Africa, the election of Nelson Mandela as President and the establishment of black majority rule. The social and cultural scene was changing rapidly. `Culture’ was now being qualified as Eurocentric or Afrocentric, and the relevance of the European classical tradition of all forms of art, including music, was being questioned. These concepts initially had no effect on the Johannesburg Bach Choir or its plans for future concerts. However, there was a disconcerting rumour that the SA Broadcasting Corporation would now devote more resources to broadcasting and producing programmes in African languages and it would no longer be prepared to support the National Orchestra, which might be disbanded. The possible loss of experienced orchestral players was a new problem for the Bach Choir management team.
The new chairman, David Kinghorn, had been on the committee since 1984, first as a bass representative and then as Treasurer. Many of the committee had been members for a long time, so the new team was well qualified to ensure the continued smooth running of the choir _ the main function being to plan and organise concerts. Usually after four or five months of rehearsal, a public concert would be given, the culmination of all the effort of learning the music and an opportunity for members to perform before an audience. A public performance is the most important event in the choir’s life. Even with experience, concerts are not easy to organise and promote. Much planning is required to co-ordinate the activities of soloists, orchestral players, singers, ushers, programme sellers, and refreshment vendors, as well as pre-concert arrangements concerning hall bookings, publicity and ticket sales. Although all committee members are involved, the handling of ticket sales is particularly onerous and unrewarding, and this is still the task of Reiner Fossati. His skill and dedication to this job are much appreciated, as are the contributions of the then choir secretary,
Kathy Whiteley, and the scores librarian, Henry Blagden.
The choir was settling down to its new conductor, Douglas Reid, who was also involved with the UNISA Choir. In May the Johannesburg Bach Choir combined with the UNISA Choir and orchestra under the direction of Douglas Reid to present an all-Beethoven concert in both the Johannesburg City Hall and in Pretoria at UNISA. The main work was the Choral Fantasia for solo piano, chorus and orchestra, with Anneke Lamont as piano soloist. Two other works were performed:
`Calm sea and prosperous voyage’ for choir and orchestra
`Christ on the Mount of Olives’, an oratorio for vocal soloists, choir and orchestra. The soloists were Hilary Falkow-Friedland, George Pretorius ( who deputised for George Kok) and Eric Visser.
In April the choir joined forces with other choirs to perform Handel’s Messiah under the baton of Weiss Doubell. The concert was held at night in the newly opened Sandton Square. The pre-concert rehearsal in the afternoon took place in the empty basement parking which provided a dramatic acoustic _ the Hallelujah chorus continued long after the choir stopped singing!
When a second City Hall concert was being planned for the end of the year, it became evident that Douglas Reid would be unable to continue with the choir as a result of his musical commitments in Pretoria, which were closely linked to his position at UNISA.
An invitation had been received from the Freemasons to sing and provide an orchestra at a centenary celebration of the Grand Lodge of the Transvaal in September. The choir accepted, and Douglas Reid promised to make himself available to conduct, but regretted that thereafter he would no longer be able to train and conduct the choir. The Freemasons’ ceremony was held at the World Trade Centre at Kempton Park and attended by many distinguished Masons and guests from around the world.
The music, which was performed at intervals during the ceremony, was as follows:
Overture: Ode to St Cecilia’s Day Handel
Anthem: `Zadok the priest’ Handel
Anthem: `I was glad’ Parry
Anthem: `The King shall rejoice’ Handel
Chorus: `The Heavens are telling’ Haydn
Two Masonic Cantatas Mozart
Hymn: `All people that on earth do
dwell’ (Old Hundredth) arr. Vaughan Williams
While the choral programme offered no serious challenges to the singers, those who took part were intrigued by the Masonic ritual and insignia and found the proceedings most enjoyable.
The committee felt that, even without a conductor, a City Hall concert should take place in November, relying on Shirley Woods to train the singers. It was hoped that one of the choir’s former conductors would be prepared to conduct the concert, and Weiss Doubell, John Mitchell and Robin Walton were to be approached. Before this happened, however, Colin Yorke, now in England, offered to return to Johannesburg to conduct the proposed City Hall concert, exchanging his conductor’s fee for an air ticket.
Colin’s offer was accepted with some relief and he returned in October.
At the end of October, the Bach Choir joined forces with other choirs at the National Eisteddfod held at Roodepoort and again performed Handel’s Messiah, conducted by Weiss Doubell.
The last concert of 1995 held in the Johannesburg City Hall consisted of music by Mozart, conducted by Colin Yorke:
`Ave Verum Corpus’
Three Masonic Cantatas:
`Dir, Seele des Weltalls’
`Lasst uns mit geschlungnen Händen’
`Laut verkünde unsre Freude’
Mass in C minor
The vocal soloists were Hilary Falkow-Friedland, Ruth Karius, Wilhelm Theunissen and Eric Visser. Tickets cost R35 and R25 and the programme cost R5. Perhaps reassured by the return of Colin Yorke, the choir performed well and the concert was a great success.
The Annual General Meeting held in July reflected a stable and well-run organisation. The Choir boasted 104 members, its musical director Colin Yorke had decided to stay and work in Johannesburg, and choir funds amounted to R75,800, the same as the previous year. Although some money had been lost on public concerts, the loss had been made up from sponsors and fees for participating in other musical events and singing in advertising commercials. Subscriptions from members came to R4000, total income was R18,000 and total expenses were R17,800.
Colin Yorke conducted the choir’s first concert in 1996 in the Johannesburg City Hall on 20th May. The programme was:
Motets: `Ecce Saccerdos’ Bruckner
Stabat Mater Rossini
Soloists were Hilary Falkow-Friedland, Elizabeth Frandsen, Jannie Moolman and Eric Visser.
The work by Rutter was new to the Choir. Writing in the Star the critic Paul Boekkooi described the concert as a “somewhat odd but nevertheless stimulating mix of works by the ever-aspiring Johannesburg Bach Choir…”
“Rossini’s Stabat Mater was by far the most satisfying part of the programme. The Bach Choir sang with a lot of spirit and characterised each of the choral pieces with real feeling… the overall effect of the singing was quite exquisite, especially in the a capella items.”
In October the choir was persuaded to join Heinz Rosner’s Deutsches Orchester to perform a series of popular vocal gems in the City Hall in a programme `Musical Diamonds’ comprising melodies from Verdi, Weber, Zeller and Johann Strauss. Not all members were enthusiastic, but most enjoyed the change from sacred music.
In November the choir sang Haydn’s `Nelson’ Mass, Bach’s Cantata `Wachet Auf’ and Vivaldi’s Gloria in the Johannesburg City Hall. Colin Yorke conducted, the orchestra was led by Annie Kossmann, and the soloists were Hilary Falkow-Friedland, Margi Nel, Jannie Moolman and Eric Visser.
At the choir’s Christmas party, the committee again performed one of Ken Fuller’s comedies written for the occasion and appropriately entitled “Monkey Business”. Fortunately newspaper critics were not invited. The custom of committee members providing entertainment at Christmas originated when John Mitchell was conductor and a suitable adaptation of “The twelve days of Christmas” was rendered.
The choir performed three concerts this year, each at a different venue. The first was at the Standard Bank Arena when the eminent British conductor Sir David Willcocks conducted Verdi’s Requiem. Members of his London Bach Choir, who were on tour, joined the SABC choir, the Bonisudumo Choristers, the Soweto Songsters and the Johannesburg Bach Choir to sing the choruses. Sibongile Khumalo and George Stevens were local soloists, while Maureen Brathwaite and Gordon Christie came from England with Sir David. The concert, which was financially assisted by a number of local and international sponsors, including MTN and the British Council, attracted an audience of 4000. Performers, audience and critics were all highly impressed with the conducting skills and warm personality of Sir David.
Shortly after this concert it was learned that the SA Broadcasting Corporation would no longer support the National Orchestra and a fund was set up to ensure its future. The Johannesburg Bach Choir donated R4000 to this orchestral fund.
Sports and sweat shirts in contemporary styles, prominently displaying the choir’s logo and name, were produced for choir members and became very popular.
As 1997 marked the hundredth anniversary of Johannes Brahms’s death, the choir presented an all-Brahms concert in the Johannesburg City Hall in June. The programme was the Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny) and the famous German Requiem. Colin Yorke conducted with soloists Elizabeth Frandsen and Eric Visser.
The choir’s minute book reveals the committee’s concern about the suitability of the Johannesburg City Hall as a concert venue. Hire costs had increased, while municipal services had deteriorated and the centre of Johannesburg was increasingly confirming its reputation as an area unsafe for visitors at night. Committee members felt that alternative concert venues should be considered. The choir’s choral repertoire was ideal for performing in churches, provided there was sufficient room for choir, orchestra and audience. The Holy Trinity Church in Braamfontein was celebrating its centenary with a series of concerts and it seemed appropriate for the choir to present the final concert of 1997 at this church. The programme consisted of two contrasting choral works, J.S. Bach’s Motet `Jesu meine Freude’ (Jesu, priceless treasure) and Vaughan Williams’s Mass in G minor for double choir. Both works are intended to be sung unaccompanied and provide a challenge for the choral ensemble. At the concert, the choir and soloists were supported by an organ continuo played by Dianne Coutts. The conductor felt that the singing was not up to the choir’s usually high standard and it was agreed that all members should be individually re-auditioned early the following year.
The prospect of an audition was greeted with little enthusiasm by members, but all except two sopranos survived the ordeal. The soprano section of the choir needed strengthening and twenty ladies requested to join, following an advertising campaign, of whom twelve were accepted as new members.
The Johannesburg Bach Choir was approached by a German choir, The Leipziger Vocalensemble, which proposed visiting South Africa. The two choirs eventually collaborated in singing Bach’s Mass in B minor under the baton of the Leipzig choir’s conductor Professor Georg Biller. Professor Biller, who was recognised internationally as a choral conductor, had been appointed Kantor of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig in 1992 _ the sixteenth in succession to J.S. Bach himself. His choir of 45 singers were former members of the famous Thomanerchor. The Johannesburg Bach Choir organised the concert, which took place in the Wits University Great Hall on 19 October with local soloists Renette Bouwer, Ann-Jeanette Benson, Wilhelm Theunissen and Eric Visser and the National Orchestra. The concert attracted a large appreciative audience. Paul Boekkooi, writing in the Star, paid tribute to Biller’s ability as a conductor, the splendid work of the soloists and the well-balanced contribution of both choirs _ he also mentioned that the concert must have provided an uplifting experience for members of the Johannesburg Bach Choir.
Following on the success of the Verdi Requiem in 1997, Richard Cock, now musical director of the National Orchestra and choir, persuaded Sir David Willcocks to return to South Africa to conduct Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana and Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances.
The concert took place at the Johannesburg Standard Bank Arena on 15 November and shortly afterwards Sir David wrote to the chairman and members of the Bach Choir from his home in Cambridge, England:
“Dear Dave, . . . Together with the Symphonic Choir of Johannesburg and the Durban Symphonic Choir, your members made a really splendid choral force which was a joy to conduct.
As on the occasion of the Verdi Requiem performance last year, I was made to feel very welcome by both singers and instrumentalists and it was wonderful to perform to such a large and appreciative audience. I feel sure that the members of all three choirs will have felt, as I did, that our two soloists, Sanet Allen and André Howard, made a valuable contribution to the performance and that the NSO excelled in all departments as did the children’s choir. I hope that the Johannesburg Bach Choir will flourish in the years ahead.
Choir members subscriptions were raised to R90 a year to provide for a security guard at the weekly rehearsal venue. Two members’ cars and a car radio had been stolen while rehearsals were in progress.
In July and August, the Hampshire County Youth Orchestra from England toured many cities in South Africa. The Bach Choir and the Symphonic Choir of Johannesburg combined in a performance of Mahler’s `Resurrection’ Symphony (No. 2) at the Johannesburg City Hall, conducted by Nicholas Wilks, the youth orchestra’s musical director.
Michael Traub, writing in the Citizen, described the concert as a “Tremendous experience” and continued:
“One does not often get an opportunity to hear the Resurrection Symphony, so it was all the more regrettable that the audience was small. The music was a tremendous experience from start to finish. The singing was attractive in tone and expression whether choral or solo and the two soloists, Ghislaine Morgan from England and our own Hanneli Rupert, matched and complemented each other admirably.”
“Quantum leap for Bach Choir”, wrote Paul Boekkooi in the Star, referring to the choir’s first concert, performed at the Bryanston Catholic Church on Sunday, 23 May and conducted by Colin Yorke and Dario Broccardo. The programme, ideally suited to performance in church, consisted of twentieth-century religious choral works:
Little requiem for
Father Malachy Lynch John Tavener (born 1941)
Requiem John Rutter (born 1945)
Mass Dario Broccardo (born 1975)
(This first public performance was
conducted by the composer)
Boekkooi’s critique gave credit to the Bach Choir for tackling music very different from its usual repertoire and noted that a younger audience had been attracted. The choir had acquitted itself well with “unfailing beautiful tone, but with intonation that often wavered and diction which could have been clearer.”
Dario Broccardo was congratulated on his refreshing outlook.
“This score is a catalogue of riches for a composer so young. If in some of the solos, Renette Bouwer sounded a bit fragile, it fitted the poignancy of the work and Broccardo was able to inspire the choir to clear diction and control over word colouring.”
Finding this church venue much to its liking, the Bach Choir performed Handel’s Messiah in the Bryanston Catholic Church on 15 November to a full audience that gave the conductor, choir, orchestra and soloists a standing ovation. Colin Yorke conducted, with soloists Marita Botha, Linette van der Merwe, Nicholas Nicolaidis and Eric Visser and an orchestra from members of the Johannesburg Philharmonic, led by Annie Kossmann.
The year 2000 marked the 250th anniversary of the death of Johann Sebastian Bach and the Johannesburg Bach Choir commemorated the event with an all-Bach concert on 10 May. Once again the choir performed in the Bryanston Catholic Church under the direction of its conductor Colin Yorke. The programme consisted of:
Cantata, `Christ lag in Todesbanden’, a work sung at the choir’s
first public concert in 1964
`Brandenburg’ Concerto No. 5
The vocal soloists were Marita Botha, Margi Nel, Nicholas Nicolaidis and Eric Visser. In the concerto, the solists were Dianne Coutts (harpsichord), Annie Kossmann (violin) and Helen Vosloo (flute).
Spurred on by the success of their Messiah concert the previous November, the choir decided to invite other singers and choirs to bring their scores and join in one rehearsal and a performance of Handel’s most popular vocal work. This venture, advertised as a `Bring it and sing it Messiah’, took place at the Rosebank Union Church on 14 October. 150 singers joined the Bach Choir and professional soloists for the pre-concert rehearsal and the concert, which attracted an an audience of 500. The proceeds, in excess of costs, were donated to the now-independent Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra, formerly the National Orchestra.
For the last concert of the millennium, the choir performed Mozart’s Requiem and `Ave Verum Corpus’ in the Bryanston Catholic Church in November, conducted by Colin Yorke with the same soloists as in the May concert. These most moving and beautiful works attracted a larger audience than the church could comfortably accommodate and were extremely well received. As was by now customary, the audience and performers were offered refreshments by the church at the end of the concert, and many of the audience took the opportunity to congratulate the conductor, soloists, choir members and orchestral players. In thanking the Bryanston Catholic Church, the chairman said the Bach Choir would look forward to performing future concerts there.
At the end of the year 2000, the Johannesburg Bach Choir maintains its reputation as a leading choral group performing classical music in Johannesburg. The choir has an active membership of more than 80, an extensive repertoire which is still being enlarged, a healthy bank balance, a charismatic conductor and the undiminished resolve to continue singing to large public audiences.
Live performances of classical music continue to attract fairly large audiences, as is evident from the recently well-attended concerts of the independent Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra, the Symphonic Choir and the Johannesburg Bach Choir. Concerts, no matter however well planned and performed, often result in financial losses and the choir is deeply grateful to its sponsors, past and present for their financial support.
Since it was founded, the choir has demonstrated its will to survive and remain independent, by presenting well-rehearsed and professionally performed public concerts. Much credit must go to the various choirmasters, conductors and committee members who have all worked hard to make this possible. However, the contribution of choir members, together with their enthusiastic support, is undoubtedly the single most important ingredient in the choir’s success.