Stefan Bevier, the leading choral conductor in Europe and the United Kingdom, doesn’t tolerate weakness, either in the choruses he leads or from the conductor’s podium.
Bevier’s musical lineage is impeccable – he played regularly with the Berlin Philharmonic under the baton of Herbert von Karajan, one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century. So what he says about conducting, you can take to the bank.
His voice teacher for five years? Only the legendary Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, one of the greatest singers of all time.
He is currently the Chorus Master of the Philharmonia Chorus, the leading vocal group in London. Bevier flies there from Germany twice a week to lead the group, whose standards he has raised to a shimmering high.
It’s not as though he’s sitting quietly at home the other five days of the week. Bevier conducts 80 concerts a year all over Europe and the UK, making him one of the most prolific music makers of the era.
If you’re going to sing for Bevier, you better be good. His standards are incredibly demanding and he is famous for not suffering fools gladly.
“A lot of singers are dummkopf,” Bevier says flatly. “They think that because they sing, they are more important than people who do not sing. Singing is not better than playing violin or football. But if you’re going to do it, you have to do it right.”
Choral singers, Bevier insists, must practice what he calls Stimmbildung, a German word freely translated as “voice formation” or vocalization.
The practice, which he learned from Fischer-Dieskau, includes voice control, voice training, release, articulation, placement of consonants, proper intonation, and perfect technique.
It’s not just singing well, though, that makes a singer a great choral singer.
“If you’re going to be a first-class chorus singer,” Bevier says, “you have to understand you’re part of the show. You’re not playing a role, as in opera.
“In order to do this, you must reduce your tremolo, so that you blend with your fellow singers. You must sing in a manner that creates overtones – a rich, wide, huge sound, not lacking for colors in each dynamic. You may think you have a big voice or a nice voice. But ultimately, you must sublimate your ego and focus on the spirit of the piece you are performing.
“A singer’s duty,” Bevier says, “is to communicate the message of the music and the voice must become the vehicle for the communication of that message. “
Bevier also has little patience for conductors who may have big names but ultimately don’t know all that much about music.
“A lot of famous conductors actually aren’t musical enough to understand a piece like Beethoven’s Ninth,” Bevier says. “They travel the world and everybody adores them, but that doesn’t mean they can do their job well. It’s the same as in any field.”
If a conductor is willing to conduct a piece well, he has to understand more than the notes on the page, Bevier insists.
“When you’re preparing to conduct a piece like Beethoven’s Ninth, or the Missa Solemnis,” Bevier says, “you must ask yourself questions. When did the composer write the piece? Under what circumstances? What did he write before that piece? What’s the history? The traditional scores of the piece – are they accurate or are they wrong? What is the texture of the music?
“A lot of conductors don’t take care. They end up doing Mozart like Beethoven, Verdi like Mahler, or Brahms like Carmina Burana.”
As a choral director, there’s only so much Bevier can do in order to overcome the shortcomings of the big-name conductor who parachutes in unprepared to lead a piece.
“If I meet a big-name conductor who is, in my opinion, not prepared or not good enough,” Bevier says, and with characteristic bluntness, “I try to get the best results anyway. I’ll have meetings with the conductor; I’ll sing or play the piano and discuss the history of the piece with the conductor. We’ll have a glass of wine together. If you have a good relationship, you can change a lot.”
Bevier says that conductors are often grateful, although they may not say so, because he is actually making them look better.
Bevier’s frame of reference remains Herbert von Karajan.
“He would create sound clouds,” Bevier recalls. “He would shape the sound, with one sound leading to the next. He never forced or pressed. He had the extraordinary ability to keep musicians free playing. He was not a policeman, always criticizing people and telling them, ‘This is wrong, this is sharp, this is flat.’ He respected his musicians and got the most from them.”
Bevier contrasts von Karajan’s style of conducting, in which he would move his hands in the way that the human body moves, with the more dramatic style statement by lesser conductors, even the famous ones.
“They often look as though they are signaling to park a jet plane, not conducting music,” Bevier says. “Karajan would never jump around like a ballet dancer. The way he conducted was not hectic or stressful. His tempi were always in proper proportion, one following the next organically. He wasn’t doing a lot of show business like a Leonard Bernstein. He was noble and reserved on stage.”
From the current generation of conductors, Bevier’s favorite is Andris Nelsons, the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
“He’s getting the best results of any conductor today,” Bevier says. “He’s always giving his full heart, not to make a show of himself. Instead, he shows the spirit of von Karajan. He is the leading conductor of our time and the result is phenomenal.
“When you listen to Nelsons conducting the Berlin Philharmonic or the Boston Symphony Orchestra, you realize there is no arrogance. Artistic leadership cannot be democratic. A conductor must decide. Nelsons is by far the best.”
A few years ago, when Nelsons conducted the Philharmonia Chorus, which Bevier had prepared in Brahm’s Requiem, Nelsons turned, satisfied, to Bevier, and gave the choral director the greatest compliment he could receive. “This is the Karajan sound,” Nelsons said approvingly.
You couldn’t give Bevier a greater compliment.