After the Harmonic’s first trip to Bonn in 1987 it was four years before the two choirs sang together again, even though the Bonn Philharmonic Choir visited Oxford in 1988 and 1989. In 1991, however, the Harmonic was invited to Bonn again to sing Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius in Oxfordwoche and a party of 65 singers set off in September with their new conductor Robert Secret.
This time the ‘Galakonzert’ was held in the Kreuzkirche, the massive Protestant city church of Bonn with a seating capacity of 1200. The concert was well received with one reviewer commenting that ‘the coordination of the two choirs succeeded admirably and the explosive effect of 150 singers made a magnificent impression’. It was also recorded by BBC Radio Oxford, in Bonn for the week. Once again the choir performed in the community festival in the Market Square, this time singing Elgar’s Bavarian Highlands.
The Harmonic committee felt ‘it was a very good trip and had also been very good for the choir as it had promoted friendship among the members’. It invited the Bonn Philharmonic to join it in concert during Oxford’s 1993 Bonn week to sing Britten’s War Requiem in Oxford Town Hall with the Oxford Symphony Orchestra, the Oxford Pro Musica chamber orchestra and a boys’ choir from New College. It was an ambitious project and the scale of it can be seen in the numbers: in total around 130 Harmonic singers, 70-80 from Bonn and 20 boys, plus 85 orchestral players and 3 soloists – over 300 performers in all. Reviewers were impressed:
The entire performance was superb. Highspots included…the Lacrymosa with soprano ringing out above the careful-stepping chorus. Pleni sunt coeli brought a beautifully controlled crescendo from the choir.
In 1995 the two choirs undertook another ambitious project, at the instigation of Thomas Neuhoff, performing Elgar’s The Kingdom in Bonn’s Oxfordwoche. This was a difficult piece not often performed in the choral repertoire, which made it a stretch to learn, and rehearsing it separately half a continent apart added problems of synchronising interpretation and timing. In addition the Bonn choir was under pressure because the performance was being sponsored and recorded by German Radio which had stipulated in its contract that it had to achieve very high standards for broadcast. The upshot was that when the choirs finally rehearsed together in Bonn shortly before the concert, Neuhoff asked the Harmonic members not to sing in some exposed passages. This caused some upset in the Harmonic and discussion about the future of the Bonn relationship in committee. Nevertheless ‘there was general agreement…that the concert had gone well and the social side had been enjoyable’, and it was decided to continue.
Such problems were avoided in 1997 when the repertoire staple Mendelssohn’s Elijah was chosen for the joint concert and was given in both cities – in Oxford Bonn week in May, and then in Bonn in August where there was an extra celebration of the 50th anniversary of the link. Once again, the Harmonic sang in the Market Square festivities.
The joint concert was felt by all sides to have gone well, but it turned out to be the last official one. Although the Bonn choir invited the Harmonic to perform Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast in the 1999 Bonn Oxfordwoche, it soon announced that financial problems prevented it from taking part. This may have been due to declining sponsorship from the city of Bonn, which lost its status as German capital to Berlin in 1990 when Germany was reunified. By 1999 the transfer of government to Berlin was finally complete, which is likely to have hit Bonn’s revenues hard.
Undeterred, the Harmonic mounted its own concert in Bonn during the 1999 Oxfordwoche, inviting along any members of the Bonn Philharmonic who wanted to participate and teaming up with the Oxfordshire Youth Orchestra, also in Bonn that year, to sing Mozart’s Requiem and Ave Verum in a joint concert in the Kreuzkirche. They also sang in the ecumenical service in the Münster, contributing Mozart’s Ave Verum and Faure’s Cantique de Jean Racine. The verdict after the trip was that it ‘worked well despite everything’ and that the Harmonic should try to keep things going with Bonn on a personal level. But it was the last trip to Bonn, perhaps partly because Mary Williams, who had handled the complex logistics of all the trips since she began them, moved to Wales with her retired husband soon afterwards and the choir lost her formidable organising powers.
There were no more concerts with the Bonn Philharmonic in Oxford either, even though it visited again officially in 2007 for the 60th anniversary of the link. But there was one last informal get together in 2008 when the Harmonic invited singers from the Bonn Philharmonic to join it once more in Britten’s War Requiem to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the end of the First World War. Just over twenty did, together with their conductor Thomas Neuhoff and one of the Bonn Philharmonic’s regular soloists, baritone Erik Sohn. It was a fine end to a long association. The Oxford Times reviewer was full of praise:
The choral singing was at its most effective in the quieter passages, but also rose impressively to climaxes. Presumably everyone could rehearse together only briefly, so the unified result was all the more impressive…
He went on:
Amid the big set pieces, [Wilfred] Owen’s words project their painful home truths on an intimate personal basis. Soloists Christopher Lemmings and Erik Sohn understood this exactly, and the fact that one is British and the other German, gave added depth to lines like: “I am the enemy you killed, my friend”.
The Oxford Harmonic’s history with the Bonn Philharmonic had shown in microcosm how the people of old enemies could become new friends.
Lindsey Charles, September 2021
Next month’s post in the series will look at some first performances and revivals of less well known works by the choir over the hundred years of its existence.