THE SUDDEN death of Simon Johnson at the age of 59 has robbed the musical world not only of one of the leading choral conductors of his generation but of an outstanding musician of wide-ranging accomplishment who inspired generations of music-lovers through his teaching and example.
Johnson's gifts as an educationalist and communicator were evident early in his career, during the period as Director of Music at King's School, Macclesfield, and subsequently at Reading University. He was a horn player and a pianist of considerable accomplishment, but it was his great love of choral singing which came to the fore at this time and shaped his subsequent career. As founder and conductor of the Reading Bach Choir in 1966-72, through his years with the Philharmonia Chorus as Assistant Chorus Master, from 1975 to 1980, and then as Musical Director of the Orfeo Catala of Barcelona, he directed virtually all the great works of the choral repertoire. He had an unsurpassed knowledge of this music and was devoted to it. A committed Christian, he brought to music a purity of vision and a profound spirituality which touched all who came into contact with him.
The seminal musical influence on Johnson was the time he spent studying with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, and to work with him on a piece such as the Faure Requiem was to experience a direct link with the performing tradition. A widely read and deeply cultured man, his starting point was always the text and its significance for the composer. He would spend hours researching every conceiveable nuance of meaning, as an integral part of the musical preparation.
As musical director of Hereford Summer School, essentially his creation, from 1986, he developed courses in choral singing and conducting which established an international reputation. Although physically a slight man, he was possessed of seemingly boundless energy: his enthusiasm was infectious, and in combination with his musical gifts enabled him to transform the sound of a choral group. As a teacher, he had an intuitive insight into personality, and the priceless gift of sensing the needs of each individual at a given stage in their musical development. Student conductors would learn from his example that musical direction consisted not of a series of pre-rehearsed gestures, but that it flowed from a profound knowledge of the composer's intentions. To any who questioned the necessity of a disciplined, totally professional approach, he replied simply: 'The joy will be so much greater . . .'
Generations of youngsters will remember with gratitude the encouragement and kindly advice imparted by him in his work as a leading festival adjudicator.
In recent years, following his return from Barcelona in 1988, he had renewed his involvement in higher education, and was head of the performers' course at the Welsh College of Music and Drama for five years. Only a few months ago he decided to reduce his lecturing commitments in order to devote more of his time to writing.
One project was a book entitled The Capacity of Wonder. It remained uncompleted, but the title itself is a fitting epitaph to a man whose memory will remain an inspiration to so many.