Where we’ve come from – the first ten years

1964

Under the headline “Bach Choir makes a promising start”, D.S. (probably Dora Sowden) wrote in the Rand Daily Mail:

“To hail the advent of a choir is a pleasure. To be able to welcome a Bach Choir is a notable event. So it was worth going to the beyonds of Bramley to hear what 30 voices could do to a cantata, a chorale and a motet under the direction of Tony Fell.

As a first performance, the programme was a most promising achievement. Of the Purcell Chaconne for strings I cannot speak as I was still in search of Bach in Bramley at the time.”

The Programme:

Chaconne for Strings in G minor                      Henry Purcell

Chorale, `Gracious Lord for all our                 J.S. Bach

     being’ from Cantata No. 147

Motet, `Jesu Priceless Treasure’, sung           J.S. Bach

     unaccompanied

Cantata No. 4, `Christ lay in Death’s              J.S. Bach

     grim prison’

A string orchestra was led by Melvyn Penn and the organ played by Jill Kirkland. The performance was recorded by the SABC and excerpts were subsequently broadcast.       

Those taking part were:

Sopranos: Elizabeth Connell (who later became a world-famous opera singer), Helen de la Harpe, Katinka Fell, Margaret Goodbrand, Anne Heywood, Margo Monteith, Gwen Nicolson, Pat O’Donovan, Peggy Richardson, Diana Simpson, Bridget Steed and Elna Webb.

Altos: Barbara Bailey, Pam Blundell, Inge Fuller, Rita Hefftner, Jenepher James, Peg Jones, Margaret Joubert and Jean Thompson.

Tenors: Keith Blundell, Alfred Herchenroder, John Nicolson and John Oliver.

Basses: Henry Blagden, Ken Fuller, Bernard Hefftner, David James, John Jones, Tony Marsh, Neville Richardson and Ted Tatham.

(Those whose names are in italics were still singing with the choir at time of writing.)

1965

Encouraged by the reception given to its first concert, the Johannesburg Bach Choir performed three times in 1965:

– at St Catherine’s Church, Bramley on 26 October

– in the chapel at St Stithian’s College on 27 October

– in St Mary’s Cathedral, Johannesburg on 1 November.

A small string orchestra, led by Cicely Harper, played the Suite No. 3 in D by J.S. Bach. The vocal works were:

Cantata No. 150, `Nach Dir Herr verlanget mich’   J.S. Bach

`Heilige Messe’ (the Mass in B flat major)           J. Haydn

All the vocal soloists were choir members, and new names amongst the singers included Jill Bennett, Tony Olds and David Kinghorn, the present chairman of the choir.

1966

The size of the choir had now increased to 48 singers, 17 Sopranos, 12 Altos, 6 Tenors and 13 Basses. The choir’s repertoire also grew to include Bach’s Cantata No. 118, `O Jesu Christ mein’s Lebens Licht’, Motet No. 6, `Lobet den Herrn’, Mozart’s `Coronation’ Mass in C, Missa Brevis in F major, some choruses from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and the 84th Psalm by Heinrich Schütz. These works were performed in June and December in St Mary’s Cathedral, Johannesburg and St Alban’s Cathedral, Pretoria.

Admission to the June performances was by programme, costing 50 cents. In December seats were 75 cents each, with booking through Show Service, the forerunner of Computicket.

1967

In 1967 the choir continued to perform in the Cathedrals of Johannesburg and Pretoria and gave one concert in each in May. The choral works were sung unaccompanied:

84th Psalm – Schütz

Missa Brevis – Palestrina

Motet, `Jesu Priceless Treasure’  – J.S. Bach

The Pretoria concert included an organ recital by Hennie Joubert, while Alan Solomon performed Bach’s Sonata in G minor for unaccompanied violin in St Mary’s Cathedral, Johannesburg.

The Rand Daily Mail’s music critic wrote:

“the Bach Choir has set its own standards as a choral group with exceptional control of colour and dynamics to say nothing of an almost unerring sense of pitch.”          

1968

This was a significant year for the choir. Membership had grown to 56 and in addition to performing in churches, the choir presented a public concert in the Great Hall of the University of the Witwatersrand. The repertoire now included works by the early English composer Orlando Gibbons and the more recent Ralph Vaughan Williams.

An Easter Concert was given in Johannesburg and Pretoria, and also at the Church of St Peter and St Paul in Springs. The programme consisted of Gibbons’s `Hosanna to the son of David’, Vaughan Williams’s Mass in G minor for double choir and Schütz’s St Luke Passion _ all the choral singing being unaccompanied.

Mr John Davies, the music critic of the Johannesburg Star newspaper, found the St Luke Passion “of great impact and most moving”. Two narrators present the story of the Last Supper, the betrayal of Christ and the final crucifixion, with the choir making appropriate choral responses. The well-known actor/producer Arnold Quin directed the two narrators, Michael Lane and James MacDonald.

The choir presented an all-Bach programme in September in the Wits Great Hall, its first concert at a major public venue. Ticket prices were R1-25, R1-00 and 75 cents and the programme cost 10 cents.

Regrettably, one of the soloists was unable to sing. We quote Joe Sack writing in the Rand Daily Mail of 26/9/1968.

“The sudden illness from a throat infection, yesterday, robbed the Welsh operatic and concert singer, Gwilym Evans, of his South African debut as a solo bass with the Johannesburg Bach Choir. Evans, who is principal bass with the Lubeck Opera House in Germany, left a gap which only the resourcefulness of conductor Tony Fell was able to fill at an hour’s notice. He requested the cellist Ishbel Sholto-Douglas to leave the fifteen piece orchestra and play Evans’s bass part which she read from a vocal score. A bassoon replaced the cello in the orchestra and the show went on as if no drama had occurred behind the scenes. The capacity audience showed its appreciation with enthusiastic applause.”

The lady singers of the Johannesburg Bach Choir wore a newly designed and fashionable black concert dress.

1969

Choir rehearsals were now held every Monday evening in the hall of Pridwin School, Melrose. The accompanist was Sheila Harland, who was the senior music teacher of Roedean School in Houghton. Jill Ackerley (formerly Bennett) was the choir secretary.

Two concerts were given in 1969. The programmes included first performances by the choir of Haydn’s `Nelson’ Mass, Bach’s Cantatas Nos 67 and 82 and the Motet No. 1 `Singet den Herrn ein neues Lied’. Gabrielle Duve was soloist in Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto No. 2 in E major.

The first concert was in St Mary’s Cathedral in May, while the second, in November, was performed in the newly built hall at the German School in Parktown. There is no record why the choir did not perform in the Wits Great Hall again, but it may be assumed that, despite a good attendance, the cost of putting on a concert there must have placed a strain on the choir’s limited cash resources.      

1970

The Johannesburg Bach Choir’s growing reputation attracted vocal soloists such as Elizabeth Connell and leading orchestral players like oboist Gerrit Bon. In the May concert, held in the German School hall, a newly discovered oboe concerto by Gottlieb Graun was to be performed with two choral works. Unfortunately the orchestral parts were mislaid and arrived too late, so Gerrit Bon played works by Pergolesi and Corelli instead. This concert was also performed in Sasolburg for the Sasolburg Music Society in June.

In November, the choir sang the first three parts of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio in St Mary’s Cathedral. Dieter Morschel, the SABC orchestra’s leading bassoon player, performed works by Marcello and Telemann.

1971

The March concert was performed in the German School hall. The choir sang Pergolesi’s Magnificat for the first time, repeated Haydn’s `Nelson’ Mass; and Gerrit Bon performed the Graun Oboe Concerto _ a first performance in South Africa.

On the 15 November, the choir achieved a long-desired ambition and performed a concert in the Johannesburg City Hall _ always regarded as the appropriate venue for classical music concerts. This concert consisted of a complete performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, with soloists Ann Hamblin, Inka Polic, James Gordon and John Thorpe. Gabrielle Duve played the harpsichord continuo and the orchestra of SABC musicians was led by Salvatore Pompa.

1972

During this year, two concerts were given in the Johannesburg City Hall. The performances included Haydn’s Te Deum, Bach’s Magnificat and a new work in the repertoire _ Beethoven’s Mass in C major, Opus 86. The results were not always good. John Davis, music critic of the Johannesburg Star, wrote of the Magnificat concert:

“Conductor Anthony Fell, in the unfamiliar wastes of the City Hall, had difficulty in balancing his choir, which occasionally was subdued, and a strident brass, in which the trumpet was often overpowering, should have been restrained more.”

1973

In 1973 the choir appeared four times in the City Hall. The choir presented two concerts itself. The second one in November included the Kyrie and Gloria from the Mass in B minor by J.S. Bach and a double cello concerto by Vivaldi, with Peter Orton and Alfredo Stengel as soloists.

On 27 and 28 November, as part of the SABC Orchestra’s third symphony season, Anton Hartman conducted Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 _ The `Resurrection’. The Bach Choir joined the SABC Choir to sing in the fifth movement. The Bach Choir had, by now, grown to 81 singers, 31 sopranos, 22 altos, 12 tenors and 16 basses.

1974

Ten years after the choir was formed, Tony Fell moved to London and introduced John Mitchell as his successor.

Fell found the opportunity to join the well-known music firm of Boosey and Hawkes too much to resist, despite his feelings for South Africa and the choir he had founded. He left after the Easter concert in the City Hall when the choir sang Mozart’s Requiem for the first time and Bach’s Cantata No. 4, `Christ lay in Death’s grim prison’, a work performed at their first concert in 1964.

The choir members parted with their founder with some regret and made him Patron of the choir, but were reassured when John Mitchell showed himself to be a very friendly and competent professional musician.

John Mitchell was then working with the opera and ballet departments of PACT, the Performing Arts Council for the Transvaal. He was a graduate from Birmingham University, England where he had specialised in Baroque choral music and choir training.

To welcome him, a Tenth Anniversary concert was held in the Johannesburg City Hall on 4 November 1974 and Bach’s Magnificat and Haydn’s `Nelson’ Mass were sung.

Included in the programme, and new to the choir and no doubt to the audience, were the Kyrie and Gloria from the Mass for Four Voices by the English composer William Byrd _ a choice of the new conductor.   

John Davis of the Star, praised the singers with the headline:

“Bach Choir in rousing performance.”

He was very complimentary about the Byrd Mass and wrote: “John Mitchell has shown himself to be a painstaking musical conductor and he should mould this choir into a significant body.”

For some time, the choir’s administration had been growing more formal. Although there is no record of an Annual General Meeting, a Constitution had been prepared. A small committee ran the choir’s affairs, with Jill Ackerley as Treasurer, Ken Fuller involved in administration and ticket sales, and Tony Olds as deputy to the musical director.