Looking beyond the Catholic realm, such as with interreligious projects like the musical setting of the Diary of Anne Frank by James Whitbourn, is a major concern of this enthusiastic church musician and organist. She’s looking to address diversity and provide motivation for new and exciting projects.
“When you request subsidies, the Province of Styria requires submission of a three-year plan—in this case, from 2023 to 2025. So I’ve had to plan our large projects before even getting there or getting to know the ensembles. And now, I’ll be very interested to see whether my ideas come to fruition,” says mdw Alumna Melissa Dermastia of the initial challenges that come along with her new post as cathedral music director in Graz. But despite the conditions she’s starting with, which aren’t entirely easy, Dermastia isn’t running short on ideas. “I’d like to do quite a few things with children and teenagers—like children’s musicals, which I’ve already put on very successfully at the cathedral in Klagenfurt.” Also on her agenda are the inauguration of the cathedral’s restored organ with pieces including Anton Bruckner’s Te Deum as well as concert projects with orchestra and large choir. “I’m really looking forward to realising big oratorios like Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, but do I think we should also be looking beyond our usual domain.” For 2025, in observance of the 80th anniversary of Anne Frank’s death and the associated memorial year, her plan is to perform a work created by James Whitbourn based on Anne Frank’s diary entries. “Bringing projects like this one into the Catholic Church is very important to me—always, of course, taking into account what’s appropriate in a church.”
I’m very happy and grateful to have landed in all of those areas where I’d wanted to work. I really do feel fortunate to have been able to achieve all this.
Her love of diversity is also attested to by her training. For this native of Carinthia, studying just one instrument wouldn’t have been enough. And with her new responsibilities as cathedral music director, Dermastia will now be able to take full advantage of her comprehensive training. She actually completed a total of four programmes of study while at the mdw: Church Music, Music Education for Voice and Instruments (with a double major in organ and piano), and Instrumental Studies (organ). “I need the variety”, explains this passionate musician, “so I’m especially looking forward to working with the various ensembles. Working with a children’s choir is different than with an adult cathedral choir.” This variety is also what Dermastia found most attractive about her future job, not to mention the rare chance to obtain a coveted post as cathedral music director. “In Austria, these positions are pretty rare. There’s a hand-off between the generations taking place at the moment—but once these openings have been filled, there won’t be any more for fifteen years,” says the experienced church musician. It was back in autumn 2020 that she responded to the announcement that a new cathedral music director was being sought, and the next year saw her invited to a hearing. “I was plagued by some initial doubts back when I applied. And in light of how ‘women and church’ is an issue for some people, it really was empowering that the final decision was in my favour. But I wouldn’t want to be the token woman.” What’s more, feeling supported by the choir is also very important to this young church musician: “Conducting continues to be a male-dominated profession, so I’m all the happier that musicians from the cathedral were involved in the selection process.”
I’m really looking forward to realising big oratorios like Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, but do I think one also has to look beyond one’s usual domain.
Today, the fact that she also chose to study music education in addition to her organ performance degree is of great advantage to the freshly minted cathedral music director. “It’s unfortunate that working with children is still paid so little attention when you study church music—because this area of work can now be found in practically every such job description.” It’s partly on her own that Melissa Dermastia has been acquiring knowledge on the topic, and she’s also drawing on colleagues for tips and tricks. “I really wish that more would be done in this area, because everywhere you look, we lack young musicians. And in working with the choirs of Graz Cathedral, as well, I’ll be interacting both with small children and with soloists—so a keen pedagogical feel is of the essence.” Alongside overseeing the numerous ensembles, her responsibilities also include providing music for one mass a week as well as realising between three and four major concerts each year. The ensembles of Graz Cathedral range from two children’s choirs and a youth choir to the Domkantorei and the Cathedral Choir as well as the Choralschola. “My life’s going to be one big choir rehearsal,” says Dermastia with a chuckle.
Her second great love, after choral music, is the organ. “What I like about the organ is how you’re dependent upon nobody but yourself. And your own performance is all that counts, in contrast to how it is with a choir.” The organ graduate is also looking to continue her previous teaching activities at the mdw if time allows. “Alongside working with ensembles, teaching organ at the mdw is something that’s very important to me. So I’m very happy and grateful to have landed in all of those areas where I’d wanted to work—at a level like that of the mdw and Graz Cathedral, no less. I really do feel fortunate to have been able to achieve all this.”