“The joy can be felt in every note” «kleinezeitung.at

The Carinthian Melissa Dermastia becomes the first cathedral music director in Graz. A conversation about looking for a hostel, glass ceilings and the power of music.

5 a.m., November 28, 2021

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Melissa Dermastia © (c) Thomas Hude

What do you associate with the first candle on the Advent wreath?
MELISSA DERMASTIA: Shining children’s eyes. I lead the cathedral children’s choir in Klagenfurt and we always organize the children’s fair on the first Sunday in Advent. Then the big Advent wreath is let down from above, one of the children is allowed to light the candle and we sing the first stanza of “We say to you to dear Advent” together. The children look at the wreath with shining eyes and there is great astonishment.

Will that take place this year?
Church services are allowed if all safety regulations are observed and a total of four soloists are also allowed to sing. Only four children from the choir will do that this year. We also always design the nativity play in the cathedral, currently we are rehearsing in different small casts – hopefully not in vain. That is always a highlight of our choir year.

What makes the nativity play so special?
Actually preparing for it, because going through the message of the Christmas story with the children is always an experience. Unfortunately, the topics of the hostel search are always topical. The children are also shocked every time that nobody wants to give Joseph and Mary a place. This natural reaction always moves me, because we as a society have long forgotten this love of neighbor and this fundamental willingness to accept people in need. It would be nice if we remember it for Christmas.

For many people, Christmas is, at best, a nice family celebration, sometimes just pure stress or shopping frenzy. Have we lost our spirituality?
I ask myself that more often, even when I see how rushed many people are. Perhaps you could also use the lockdown to find inner peace and spend more time with yourself. The churches are open and not only there for those who want to pray. You can also just sit in and let the room work its magic on you, the very special smell, maybe light a candle. And if you are lucky, someone will practice the organ and you will also have music. (laughs)

The organ is considered the queen of instruments. How did you come across this instrument?
I started with the piano and at some point wanted to add a second instrument without it being too much of a hassle. (laughs) And then I quickly realized how incredibly many sound possibilities this instrument has. An organ is a whole orchestra, you can imitate so many instruments. And many of these church organs are very old, they are real treasures that are still played on and are not in museums. In the Saxon region there are organs on which Johann Sebastian Bach played. And today we are also allowed to play on these precious instruments.

Melissa Dermastia. Born 1990 in Klagenfurt. Studied at the University of Music in Vienna, where she now teaches the organ. Currently cathedral music assistant in Klagenfurt, from 2023 first cathedral music director in Graz. Lives with her partner, the church musician Klaus Waltritsch, in Vienna and
Klagenfurt.

From 2023 you will succeed Josef Döller as cathedral music director in Graz. How many female cathedral chapel masters are there in Austria?
I am only the second. In the 1990s Ingrun Fußenegger was Austria’s first female cathedral conductor, in Feldkirch in Vorarlberg. By the way, she was also my choir conducting professor at the Vienna University of Music and was really happy that I got this position. Also as a kind of role model that this is even possible. I myself was very much wondering whether going to a hearing as a woman would be of any use at all. But then I thought: Especially as a woman I have to go there. It doesn’t help to just complain about the difficulty in breaking through the glass ceiling; we also have to be proactive.

Why is church music still so male-dominated?
Perhaps because the Church is also male-dominated. But overall that’s also a problem with conducting – there are hardly any women at the podium, although there is no shortage of female graduates, and we will probably have to wait even longer for a female conductor to conduct the New Year’s concert for the first time. After all, the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra has a woman at the helm in Marin Alsop. In the church itself it often depends on the pastor what is possible and how women are involved as cantors, lecturers or communion donors. As a choir director, I have another problem anyway: there are enough women who like to sing, I have to see how I can get tenors and basses. (laughs)

What do you find fascinating about choral work?
The Community. A lot of different personalities are brought together in a group that sounds homogeneous – to achieve that is something special.

This connection – isn’t that exactly what our society needs now?
Naturally. You can learn a lot from music: listening to each other and getting in tune with each other. You become more sensitive, music has an integrative character and is a universal language that can build bridges. And music is especially important for children because social learning is very playful. That’s why it was such a shame that practically the first areas to be closed in the school were sports and music. Other solutions could have been found there.

Why is Christmas unimaginable without music?
Because nothing can convey feelings as much as music. Only music can create this special atmosphere, this anticipation. No department store or punch stand can do that. I personally experience and develop a wide variety of Advent and Christmas carols, especially in my rehearsal work with the Carinthian Madrigal Choir. But just before Christmas it gets a bit more alpine for me and I think that’s because my parents decorated the Christmas tree with us children on December 23rd and we heard Carinthian songs. Now that’s just a part of it: it’s cold outside, the tiled stove is on, the family is together. That is security. But on December 25th it has to be Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio”, which begins with the words: “Cheer, rejoice”. The joy can be felt in every note.

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