European Chamber Music Academy in Grafenegg, Austria

A week of action, comedy and drama

Perhaps some of you are familiar with the concept of ECMA and what an ECMA session is. For those of you who are not, let me quickly explain before I launch into (what will probably end up as) a praise of the latest session in Grafenegg – I am a fan of ECMA and I cannot help it!

ECMA Grafenegg
ECMA Grafenegg ©Gerard Spee

What ECMA is about

The European Chamber Music Academy (in short ECMA) is a programme of tuition for up-and-coming chamber music ensembles. The week-long master classes take place throughout the year and are hosted by different music institutions around Europe (Paris, Oslo, Vilnius, Bern Conservatoires to name just a few). At each session there are several tutors, each one coaching the different participating ensembles. In addition, there are lectures and workshops, exploring the different themes of each session.

ECMA lesson
ECMA lesson ©Gerard Spee

“So far, so common”, you might think: but here is what is rather extraordinary and, I believe, unique for ECMA: you get hours and hours of coaching, workshops and concerts all for free(!) Now, anyone who has chosen music as their profession knows we’d give anything to get better at what we do, to know more, to find a way of being more convincing, honest and touching as performers.

Know and understand music better

When we are talking chamber music, in addition to the pains of finding “your own voice” come also those of making something beautiful together with other people, knowing their parts, understanding their ideas. Here is what ECMA is absolutely priceless for: it helps you do just that – know and understand music better, and know how to do it better as an ensemble.

The latest ECMA session took place in Grafenegg the week 15-22 May 2016. Our trio has taken part in previous sessions, so I knew the ECMA format well and I knew what I could expect in terms of the daily organisation. What nobody can ever know in advance is what will happen in the lessons or the workshops. The theme this time was “chamber.dramas” and the three workshops explored the connection between theatre and music and the theatrical aspects of our performances on stage.

Jerome Junod
Lecturer Jerome Junod ©Gerard Spee

Perhaps here is a good place to explain the title of this post – as Jerome Junod, one of the lecturers in Grafenegg and a professor of stage direction at mdw, explained – the word “drama” originally meant “to do” or something similar to today’s “action”. Well, if we elaborate on that, then it is fair to say that any musical performance is “drama”.

Music & comedy

Many performances can benefit from comedy, which was masterfully demonstrated in the Humoresque Workshop led by Hyung-ki Joo. He let us witness the preparation process of one of his upcoming shows (which are always great fun) and also coached the Mettis Quartet (a group from Lithuania) on one of his own compositions called Tributes. The piece asks the performers in turn to keep totally “frozen”, jump up and down, and make painfully slow, exaggerated movements – all of which the boys of the quartet performed admirably even the first time around.

Humoresque Workshop
Humoresque Workshop with Hyung-ki Joo ©Gerard Spee

After a bit of “try-this and that” (including having a super-slow fake fight!, which Hyung-ki Joo recommends as a great “let the steam-off” technique in rehearsals 🙂 ), the piece got even more visually exciting. Body language, movements and overall presentation were the key points of the workshop… certainly food for thought for us all.

A full week of master classes

The highlight for me, as usual, were the individual master classes. What I always find most challenging about an ECMA session (and this has also been expressed by musicians from other participating ensembles I have spoken to) is the sheer intensity of ideas, opinions and viewpoints one is confronted with in this week of coaching.

Johannes Meissl
Lecturer Johannes Meissl (to the right) ©Gerard Spee

Let me give an example: we might play the same movement of a Beethoven trio for three different professors in two days and hear three (sometimes opposing) opinions about what could be done better and how. However, before we manage to get all confused or depressed, a pattern inevitably emerges.

We notice that it is always the same section that is being commented on, or the same passage that sounds unconvincing to all three, and whether we can take onboard all of the solutions that are suggested or just some (in music, luckily, there are often more than one ways of doing things right), we know what the problems are. It is not an easy process – digesting it all, but if you can do it as a group, you are a few steps closer to where you are headed.

Hatto Beyerle
ECMA initiator Hatto Beyerle ©Gerard Spee

The session finished off with three concerts – one of the participating ensembles (we got to play a couple of movements of Dvorak’s trio in F minor) and two recitals of alumni ensembles Trio Gaspard and Arcadia Quartet. Unfortunately, we had to leave a day earlier and we could not hear these last two. However, the “Best of ECMA” concert on Friday was certainly a testament to the high-level, earnest music-making that is signatory for ECMA.

A tight schedule

My only regret for this session is that I could not spend much time getting to know the members of other groups – the schedule was just too tight! – it is on my list for the next time 🙂

Hariolf Schlichtig
Lecturer Hariolf Schlichtig ©Gerard Spee

And now I leave you with a loose quotation/translation of something Hariolf Schlichtig – one of our tutors – said when asked whether he thought the green surroundings of Schloss Grafenegg contributed to the quality of this ECMA- experience:

“But of course, I walk around the beautiful grounds, I see a tree and it reminds me of what a musician should be – with roots solidly planted in the earth and branches always outstretched towards the sky.”

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