ArtsWatch guest post: Mark Powell on German choral conductor Frieder Bernius

Conductor Frieder Bernius

Editor’s Note: In what may be the most anticipated event of what’s already been an amazing season of choral music, the Stuttgart Kammerchor performs in Portland this Friday, March 16, at 8 pm at First Congregational Church, 1126 SW Park Ave. They’ll perform music by J.S. Bach, Felix Mendelssohn, and the great 20th century composer Gyorgy Ligeti’s shimmering Lux Aeterna, which might as well be subtitled “as heard in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey.” The Portland State University Chamber Choir, directed by Ethan Sperry, will also perform. ArtsWatch asked Cappella Romana singer and executive director Mark Powell, who’s worked with Bernius, to explain why he’s so revered in the choral music world.

Frieder Bernius: A Personal Reflection

By Mark Powell

In 1990 I was living in Northern England, working for the National Youth Choir of Great Britain and singing as a lay clerk at Wakefield Cathedral. Having just finished a liberal arts degree with a focus in vocal music performance, I was pursuing my dream of being a professional choral singer in Europe. I auditioned for the World Youth Choir, an important ongoing project of the International Federation for Choral Music, and was accepted as part of the British delegation in summer 1991. Singers from about 30 countries were to be directed by Fred Sjöberg from Sweden, who led the a cappella program, and Frieder Bernius from Germany.

Frieder conducted Mozart’s Great Mass in C with the WYC and a period instrument orchestra in the Baroque St. Nicholas Church (built 1703) in Lesser Town Square in Prague. It was an experience that changed my life, solidifying that summer at least two directions my career would take: a commitment to historically informed performance and to supporting the professionalization of ensemble singers. I had never experienced Mozart’s Mass performed live like that, in which the orchestral players were on even ground with the singers. One was not simply accompanying the other; they each assumed equal rhetorical, aesthetic, tonal, even spiritual importance.

I also learned from Frieder (over a certain amount of Czech beer) about his Kammerchor Stuttgart, a professional ensemble he founded in 1968 (at the age of 21!), the first of a number of ensembles he founded to express directly his commitment to elevating choral music to the same level as orchestral music in our cultural life. It was a defining moment for me. I too wanted the world to value singing in a top-flight choir the same way it values playing in a top-flight orchestra.

Later in 1991 I moved to Belgium and spent two years working for the IFCM and singing in the Choeur de Chambre de Namur, another excellent choral ensemble in Europe. Bernius had become a regular guest conductor, and I had the great fortune to experience his leadership on numerous occasions, whether it was a project of late Romantic German works by Mendelssohn, Brahms, Rheinberger and Cornelius, or Baroque works such as the Stabat Mater of Domenico Scarlatti (a 10-part Baroque masterpiece that ought to be programmed far more often than it is).

Frieder has an uncanny ability to elicit the finest musicianship from the singers he leads — in a way that does not create undue stress. There’s a gravitas to his style, a roundedness that might begin simply with his balanced, poised stance on the podium, but it’s much more than that. I share the belief that what the singers see is what they automatically imitate themselves, so Frieder’s physical grounding and solidity translates to the singers’ musical technique, even without any gesture. With Frieder, conducting is not just waving your arms about.

One project I remember fondly was a program of the Psalms of David by Heinrich Schütz, accompanied by portativ organ with mean-tone tuning — one of the dominant ways of tuning European instruments from the late 15th century until the compromised equal temperament system was imposed in the 20th century. The vocal colors Bernius was able to achieve were extraordinary, fully exploiting the capacities of the singers to match the organ’s tuning to create the music’s unique effects. It took time, listening to the tuning of the organ, the singers imitating that, rehearsing certain sonorities enough times that the physical memory of “where that note is sung in the body” was made permanent. That experience may have played a part in preparing me for other musics that require heightened sensitivity to different tunings, such as Byzantine chant.

I remember interviewing Bernius for a piece I was writing about his work for a French choral journal; this was all taking place during the “authenticity” wars in period instrument performance. Essentially his philosophy was to take the historical record and be informed by it, but in the end, because music is ultimately a thing that you “do” in the present, one has to make decisions, and stick by them, when the historical record does not provide certainty.

Bernius does not simply follow what others have done before him; his performances have a personal quality to them. I sensed at times, whether it was in rehearsal, or at a meal, that his music making was also informed by his own experiences as a child of post-war Europe, perhaps with an understated optimism for the power of music to change our lives.

Perhaps the most direct expression of this for me was his leading Francis Poulenc’s miniature cantata Un Soir de Neige (“Snowy Night”) with the combined ensembles of the Choeur de Chambre de Namur (French-speaking) and the Kammerchor Stuttgart (German-speaking). Un soir de neige is an allegorical work about the German occupation of French-speaking Europe. Paul Éluard’s poem evokes images of the hunted animal in the dead of winter, while plaintive melodies over open sonorities lend the piece a kind of religious yearning. Bursts of shivering and austere harmonies only underscore its coldness.

More than reading any history text, that experience of Un soir de neige gave me a new personal understanding of the human toll that war paid upon the European soil as well as a shared catharsis in that moment: a German conductor leading French- and German-speaking performers singing a common lament, with the hope that we might not ever go to war again. I recall Frieder’s interpretation, far from mannered, emphasized the dissonant sonorities, whether through extra volume or stretching of the pulse, granting the cadences a more solid sense of resolve. It felt like the same resolve to make peace in the world.

Kammerchor Stuttgart performs in Portland Friday

Speed ahead to 1999, when the Kammerchor Stuttgart visited Portland for an American Choral Director’s Association conference. Kathleen (now my wife) and I traveled south from our then-home in Seattle to hear the choir and see old friends in the ensemble. The program featured Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden, motets by Brahms and Rheinberger, Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna (known for its use in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, and which will also appear on their program this Friday), topped off by an encore of the first movement of Schnittke’s spectacular and virtuosic Choir Concerto. I don’t know of any other choir in the world that would not only attempt, but also master, such a range of technically ferocious pieces with élan, grace and power.

While it’s possible to hear lots of excellent choral singing in Portland, the Kammerchor Stuttgart offers us something unique for at least two reasons. First, it is rare to hear choral works of the a cappella German Romantic literature sung not only by native German speakers, but also with the laser-beam precision and power for which Bernius is known; their recordings of Brahms, Mendelssohn, and Bruckner are truly peerless. Second, the a cappella works of 20th century masters Gyorgy Ligeti and Krzysztof Penderecki are only rarely attempted by even the best choirs. This Friday you’ll hear a work by each of them, and the performances will not be mere attempts, I assure you.

It is not necessary to list Frieder Bernius’s many international prizes and awards nor his extensive discography of over 80 recordings. While I may be biased from my own experiences working with him, I can without any hesitation recommend you attend his Kammerchoir Stuttgart’s performance this Friday and experience firsthand one of the world’s great chamber choirs.

Mark Powell is director of development and marketing at Portland Baroque Orchestra and executive director of Cappella Romana Vocal Ensemble. He continues to perform as a professional ensemble singer.

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