Reading Bach Choir was founded in 1966 by Simon Johnson, with the aims of performing choral music to the highest standard, and of promoting the enjoyment of music in the Reading area. The performance of a major Bach works every two years is a continuing aim, though our repertoire has always been very varied. In pursuit of high standards we have always employed professional instrumentalists and soloists. To date we have sung under six different music directors who have each brought to the Choir their own brand of inspiration.
Simon Johnson 1966-1973
Simon, who taught Music at the University’s School of Education, instituted an ambitious programming policy which has remained a hallmark of the Choir. His first concert, in 1966, set the standard for the years to come: Bach’s B minor Mass, with soloists including John Carol Case and Wilfred Brown. Bach figured prominently in the early years, but Simon’s programmes also featured challenging works by Malcolm Williamson, Palestrina, Stravinsky and Britten. A notable achievement was the first performance in Reading of Tippett’s A Child of Our Time in 1972.
Julian Williamson 1973-1992
Julian was a freelance conductor from London. Under his baton adventurous programming continued to be the norm: as well as a wide range of early music there were many 20th century pieces, including works by Phyllis Tate, Ligeti, Geoffrey Burgon and Peter Maxwell Davies, and the first British performance of Iain Hamilton’s Requiem. During Julian’s regime we ventured further afield, giving several concerts in London, at the Royal Festival and Queen Elizabeth Halls and the Barbican. We enjoyed weekends working with the Rehearsal Orchestra to give concert performances of operas, including Carmen, The Force of Destiny and La Bohème. We have often joined forces with others to present larger-scale works. In Reading, we have sung with the Festival Chorus and the Haydn Choir, and a number of concerts were performed in Winchester Cathedral with the Waynflete Singers under Martin Neary, including Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius. In 1979 we first made contact, via the Reading-Düsseldorf Association, with the Friedenskirche Chor. Several visits and joint concerts followed. In 1982 we had a week-long trip to Philadelphia to sing Bach’s St Matthew Passion with the Philadelphia Festival Chorus.
Sarah Tenant-Flowers 1992-1999
Julian’s successor in 1992 was Sarah Tenant-Flowers, a talented and ambitious young conductor with a background in arts administration. Her experience and professionalism in this field were of great value in concert promotion and planning. Along with her administrative skills Sarah brought a lively and intelligent interest in singing technique, and as well as coaching in rehearsals, she arranged vocal workshops for choir members. Her interest in choral conducting led to our winning a BT award, which was used to appoint a trainee conductor, Paul Stephenson. For six months he benefited from Sarah’s tuition and gained valuable experience conducting us at several concerts.
Repertoire continued to be varied and exciting, with a leaning towards the contemporary (Gorecki, Jonathan Harvey) and new departures into the Russian church repertoire (Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, Grechaninov, Berezovsky). But Bach has never been neglected, and the two Passions and the B minor Mass all received performances under Sarah.
In May 1995 we joined forces again with our Dusseldorf partner choir to perform Britten’s War Requiem, to mark the 50th anniversary of VE day. This performance brought together two Dusseldorf and two Reading choirs under the baton of Jonathan Grieves Smith, at that time conductor of the Reading Festival Chorus. It was a tremendous and moving occasion, and choir members felt privileged to take part.
Mark Shepherd 1999-2003
Mark was a teacher at the Royal Academy of Music, and at Wycombe Abbey School. Under his direction programming continued to be varied with works by Naylor, Jennefelt, Lassus, Roxanna Panufnik, and Taverner, in addition to the more traditional repertoire.
JanJoost van Elburg 2003-2010
JanJoost brought to the Choir his very high standards of performance, and a repertoire which included much lesser known music especially Baroque works and works known on the continent but less so here. Works by Frank Martin, Vic Nees, Daan Manneke, Guerrero, Clemens non Papa, and many other lesser known names gave us a reputation for something new and different. The improved sound and imaginative programming led to a steady growth in audience numbers. Various weekend workshops in Reading and further afield helped us to develop our confidence and technique. A new venture was peripatetic concerts: two churches tours where we sang a short concert in each of three churches, with a brief talk on the history and architecture of the buildings. In 2005 we were invited to participate in the first International Bach Choral Festival in Leipzig, along with choirs from Japan and the US, and in 2009 we joined other local choirs for the Reading Festival of Choirs.
Matthew Hamilton 2010-
Young, enthusiastic, talented and exciting, Matthew is maintaining our reputation for adventurous programming, with a particular stress on contemporary music. Works by Elizabeth Machonchy, Jaako Mantijarvi, Sven-David Sandstrom, Nico Muhly, James Macmillan and David Lang, have formed part of a very exciting and dynamic repertoire. We are continuing to improve our singing quality by providing the opportunity for individual singing lessons during rehearsals. In 2012 we took a successful trip to Belgium, singing at the Menin Gate ceremony and in churches in Ypres and Ghent.
For the first time ever, we commissioned a new work by Gabriel Jackson for performance in summer 2014 and hope to be able to do so again soon.
Planning is now under way for celebrations of our 50th birthday in 2016/7.