In Derby John was appreciated both as a talented pianist (playing excerpts from Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue in March 1943) and as an accompanist. In the Central Hall on 6th October 1943, in aid of the British Red Cross & St John's, Prisoners of War (Derby Branch) he accompanied Arthur Catterall, formerly leader of the BBC Orchestra, whose autograph he had sought as a young boy at the Proms. They played Dohnanyi's Sonata for violin and piano, opus 21 and Henry Eccles' Sonata in G minor for violin, cello and piano, with Olga Hegedus. In the second half he accompanied her again, in the Beethoven Sonata in A for cello and piano, opus 69. The recital was very poorly attended, as Derby audiences clearly preferred listening to a symphony orchestra.
The Derby Philharmonic Orchestra, of which seventy-five per cent of its sixty or seventy members were amateurs, owed its survival to Mr William Daltrey, who, determined to revive the orchestra, had collected together as many members as were available during the war. As well as coping with the organisation, he had conducted on two previous occasions, not very satisfactorily. A committee was formed 'to remove Mr Daltrey of some of the hard work' and an announcement appeared in the local press on 22nd November 1943: 'Mr John Pritchard, who until then has been principal viola and who is an experienced musician, was asked to become conductor for this season and he has accepted the office.'
.John's first concert with the reorganised Derby Philharmonic (Orchestra on 29th April in the Central Hall, was well attended. The Orchestra was full of enthusiasm, perhaps making up for their lack of proficiency in a programme including three movements from the Schumann Symphony No 1 in B flat ('The Spring'), Mozart's Magic Flute Overture, Sibelius' Finlandia and the Grand March from Tannhuuser, as well as arias sung by Noel Eadie from La Traviata and items by Purcell and Mozart. The soloist's success demanded two encores. John's father noted with amazement in his diary that his son had 'conducted an orchestra of sixty'.
During this 1944 - 45 season there were still restrictions on travel abroad and it was part of a musician's career to perform on behalf of charities, such as the Red Cross and War Disabled, in provincial cities like Derby. It gave John an opportunity which he would never have had in normal circumstances to work with artists of calibre. A concert on 14th October 1944 with Leon Goossens as soloist was remarkable for the wide range of programming. As his accompanist was unavailable, John left the rostrum accompanying him at sight, much to Goossens' satisfaction.
Whilst John was praised for his work, the Derby Philharmonic's standard of playing evoked much criticism. The surprising success of the evening, from John's point of view, had been Bizet's L'Arlesienne Suite but the pivot of the programme was the Cesar Franck Symphony. It had attracted a painfully small audience. It would surprise today's listener that the Cesar Franck Symphony, a work which many would regard almost as 'pop' music, should be regarded as of 'too advanced a nature for the people of Derby who had not been given the opportunity of regularly attending orchestral concerts for some time'. Provoking considerable discussion in the local press, many readers believed that it was for the radio to introduce new music to the public but that in their midst they preferred listening to well-loved works, with an acoustic standard that could not be attained on either their radios or gramophones.
Replying to a long letter to the Derby Evening Telegraph on 25th October 1944, John expressed views on unfamiliar music that were to remain his philosophy for life. Commenting that he had a good deal of sympathy with correspondents who were a trifle uneasy lest familiarity with the works to be played should mar their appreciation of the concert, many people who heard the performance of the Cesar Franck Symphony in full for the first time had assured him that they found no difficulty in enjoying this beautiful work. He believed that those who mistrusted a programme including the 'Franck' but were thoroughly at home when listening to Beethoven's 7th Symphony, might be compared with people who, 'after many happy holidays at Llandudno, are unwilling to make the dangerous experiment of a long weekend at Colwyn Bay!' He recognised that whilst standard works of the concert repertoire had a legitimate claim on the main affection of music-lovers and programmes which did not take this into account were not fulfilling their proper function, he would be less than fair to whatever artistic conscience he possessed were he to exclude from the Philharmonic programmes beautiful pieces of music, merely because they were unfamiliar. He concluded: 'I am hopeful that what I have said may remove a possible impression among the musical public of Derby that the Philharmonic's conductor is "riding a hobbyhorse" in search of mere novelty for its own sake.'
However, it was the decision by the Music Club to devote its meeting of 21st July 1943 to a programme of music for a string orchestra that was to have more far-reaching consequences for John. The date had been chosen to enable rehearsals to take place during the summer months when blackout hours were shortest. In a letter of 5th April 1943, the honorary Secretary (later Chairman), Leslie Smart informed members that the 'duty of making the necessary arrangements had been delegated to Mr John Pritchard, who has had considerable experience, to conduct the first rehearsals.' In an Art Gallery concert on 2nd February 1944 with J Yates Greenhalgh (bass) and Eva Metzler (soprano), John introduced a new aspect into his music-making. Her programme with the newly named Derby String Orchestra included the Mozart arias 'Ay, ye who have duly learned' from The Marriage of Figaro, 'Hours of joy' from The Magic Flute and 'When a maiden takes your fancy' from Il Seraglio.
Several years older than John, Eva Metzler was an attractive dark-haired lady who had been a singer in Germany. She had had a difficult time coming to Britain, particularly as her mother continued to live in Berlin. Leslie Smart gave the young refugee a room in his house in exchange for assisting his wife Dorothy and a close friendship developed between the two women. Highly knowledgeable about opera and Wagner in particular, Eva had taught John a great deal since the time he first accompanied her at the piano in a concert given by the Derby Home Guard Military Band on 1st November 1942. The obvious rapport in their Art Gallery concet ws suh that it elicited a warm letter dated 13th February 1944 from Leslie Smart to John. Writing on behalf his committee, he expressed:
Congratulations and thanks for the very excellent programme of Music which the Derby String Orchestra offered to the Club on January 2nd. The evening was certainly the most successful in the history of the Club. It has already brought us many new members, and the attendance was a record.
My Committee feel that whilst many people contributed to the success of the evening, the chief credit lies with yourself. They feel that you possess great talents in this sphere and that when the time is ripe you should go a long way.
The players felt that they would like to continue working with John giving concerts on a regular basis in the Art Gallery. They even holidayed together and with Leslie Smart went to Crag House, Grasmere in the Lake District, where one evening John accompanied Vera Kantrovitch, Olga Hegedus and Eva Metzler in a concert. Olga Hegedus commented that even at that time John showed a natural authority and was able to get the best from an orchestra with minimum effort.
When Adila Fachiri, the vivacious Hungarian violinist, a great-niece of Joachim, appeared at Derby on 17th February 1945 for the Education Committee in the Art Gallery, Leslie Smart suggested John as her accompanist. Impressed by his accompaniment of Bloch's Baal Shem, having only seen the difficult score for the first time just before the concert, she asked him to accompany in a recital at the Wigmore Hall on 2nd May. His first appearance at the London venue was an exciting moment for John. 'The reaction to his ability as an accompanist by a soloist of international calibre was to be instrumental in his decision to become a professional musician.
The Derby Philharmonic often worked with the Derby Choral Union. At his first rehearsal with the choir, he told them to 'relax the voice, pay no attention to expression marks, aim at good tone and accuracy of notes' but at the second rehearsal, when they tackled the well-known opening chorus from Mendelssohn's Elijah, he took off his jacket, would not allow the singers to sit and worked paticularly on their expression. Favourably received, he commented: "The public public is entitled to hear its favourites and to good performances." Unfortunately the venue for the concerts, the LMS Institute, was unsatisfactory for such large works and for accomodating an audience.