W. Ifor Jones, 88; Led Bethlehem Bach Choir

Posted: November 15, 1988

W. Ifor Jones, 88, the demanding, dynamic conductor of the Bach Choir of Bethlehem who directed the first American performances of numerous Bach cantatas and drew thousands to yearly festivals of the German composer's music, died Friday at the Quakertown Manor Convalescent and Rehabilitation Facility.

A tall, dark, imposing man whose accent gave away his Welsh origins and an underlying geniality, Mr. Jones was hired as choir conductor in 1938 with the hope that he would build up the Bach Choir of Bethlehem the way Leopold Stokowski had built up the Philadelphia Orchestra.

During more than three decades as resident conductor, Mr. Jones indeed made his mark.

His were the years that musicians from the Philadelphia Orchestra regularly played Bach festivals. Mr. Jones doubled the length of the group's spring festival.

He also brought to the choir his intensity, his passion.

"Ifor carried on the traditions of its founder and, in the musical world, brought it into the forefront of Bach music in the United States," said Edmund W. Young Jr., a member of the choir since 1955. "He was a great choral conductor.

"He instilled his love of the music of Bach into the singers," Young added. "I'd say music was in every bone and fiber of his body."

Colorful and viewed as something of a romantic, Mr. Jones led performances steeped in feeling and flair. Choirs were large. It was a different era in productions of Johann Sebastian Bach, before the advent of baroque-style performances and smaller choral groups.

Mr. Jones inspired emotional performances from his choir and orchestra.

"The music was sung with a great deal of feeling. You would feel rejuvenated by a rehearsal," recalled Joyce Lukehart, a former member of the choir. "It was so exhilarating."

Though the choir performed elsewhere on occasion - and over the years played at the Academy of Music, Carnegie Hall in New York and Symphony Hall in Boston - the major event of the year was always the Bach festival, started in 1900.

There, in the spacious Packer Church at Lehigh University, with its high ceilings and stained-glass windows, Mr. Jones stood with his back to the audience - often a flamboyant, if exacting, conductor.

He permitted no applause: For him, the music of Bach was sacred.

"At times one was lifted out of one's seat" by the excitement, a Bethlehem Globe-Times reviewer said of Mr. Jones' work.

All of that a distance from where Mr. Jones had started.

Born in South Wales, Mr. Jones had been reared in a mining town. His father was a coal miner and a lover of music. At age 10, Mr. Jones was playing organ in his church and standing on chairs to lead its choir.

In keeping with Welsh tradition, however, Mr. Jones, the eldest son, followed his father into the coal mines. But so poorly did he do the job that his father finally encouraged him to pursue playing the piano.

Mr. Jones won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music. And from then on, music was the focus of his life.

While studying, Mr. Jones at one time served as assistant conductor under the great Sir Henry Wood of the Queen's Hall Orchestra. He also became assistant choir master at St. Paul's Cathedral in London and worked as a vocal coach at the Covent Garden Opera House in London.

He graduated in 1927. Shortly afterward, Mr. Jones came to the United States as an organist participating in a cultural exchange program. It was after a performance at Rutgers University that he was offered a faculty position.

He wrote to his teacher, Sir Henry Wood. Sir Henry advised him to stay.

During his eight years on the Rutgers faculty, Mr. Jones also worked as an organist and choirmaster at the Presbyterian Church of Bound Brook, N.J. In 1931, he founded the Handel Choir in Westfield, N.J.

During a Handel choir performance he conducted, he impressed the executive board of the Bach choir.

At 38, Mr. Jones was selected to direct the Bach choir and orchestra, the group's third conductor. His work became exceedingly popular. Bach festival performances sold out. He eventually extended the length of the May festival, adding a second series of weekend performances.

Along the way, he also edited Bach cantatas and directed many first American performances.

"He was a perfectly wonderful musician. . . . The need for the second weekend tells you a lot right there," said Robert Hampson, a vice president of the Bach choir's board of managers.

"For the years he was conductor, that was his main goal in life - to have this beautiful music sung two weeks in May and to do the best job he could musically," said Lukehart.

While directing the Bach choir, Mr. Jones also taught at the Peabody

Conservatory in Baltimore and the Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and was organist and choir director at the Central Moravian Church in Bethlehem, where he lived.

In 1946, Mr. Jones also began conducting the New Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, an ensemble composed of New School of Music students and faculty members, including many musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra. He directed

from that year, the group's second season, until 1954.

Though he stepped down from the Bach choir podium in 1969, Mr. Jones didn't leave music behind.

In 1970, he formed a choir group in Quakertown, to which he had moved. The Cantata Singers performed Handel oratorios, Bach cantatas and English services of lessons and carols. The group's last performance was in 1986.

He had spent the last several years editing Regina Coeli, a work for chorus and orchestra composed by Mozart.

He was made a fellow of the British Royal Academy of Music in 1948, the first foreigner - he was by then an American citizen - to be so honored.

He had been awarded honorary doctoral degrees from the Moravian College in Bethlehem and the Chicago Conservatory of Music.

He was a member of the Unitarian Church of the Lehigh Valley in Bethlehem.

Surviving are his wife, Bonnie Fix Jones; two daughters, Dilys Smith and Gwyneth Rochlin; five grandchildren, a brother and two sisters.

A memorial concert is to be arranged.

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