by David Abrams

Deutsch version of interview

Marie-Elisabeth Hecker plays the Fauré's Elégie.
Marie-Elisabeth Hecker plays the "Largo" of Shostakovitch's Piano Trio in Em.

Marie-Elisabeth Hecker is a passionate, sensitive, and highly creative cellist, who brings a magical enjoyment and beauty to everything she plays. She achieved international acclaim when she won the 8th Rostropovich Cello Competition in Paris in November 2005. German and French television made stirring documentaries of the competition, which continue to be broadcast across Europe. A senior French cellist exclaimed, "She is an extraterrestrial. It only takes a few seconds to discover that the fairytale is true. A real enchantment." Reviewers in Europe and America praise her concerto and chamber music performances as "Heartbreakingly sad and dreamwalkingly beautiful" (Die Zeit, Germany, July 20, 2006), "Amazing and stunning" (Chicago), and "A true moment of paradise." (France).

Fred Kirshnit of the New York Sun writes: "Her tone is immediate, yearning, importunate. She grabs hold of the listener by the sleeve and never lets go. She played with her eyes closed throughout, weaving a web of passion and controlled intensity. In the best romantic tradition, she endowed each phrase with its own dynamics, with small contrasts paying big dividends. She has a generous vibrato and even waggles her bow in the old style. Her performance resulted in searingly beautiful communication" (August 7, 2006).

Marie-Elisabeth was born on March 5, 1987 in Zwickau, a city in the Saxony area of northeastern Germany. Zwickau is well-known as a musical city, because it is also the birthplace of the famous composer, Robert Schumann. Her father is a Lutheran minister and she is the 5th born of 8 children. Although her parents are not musicians, her four brothers and three sisters play musical instruments. She has given many concerts with her brothers, Martin and Andreas, pianists, her sister Renate, a violinist, her brother Friedemann, viola, and another brother, Thomas, an oboist.

Marie-Elisabeth began studying the cello in 1992 at age 5 years with Wieland Pörner at the Robert Schumann Music Conservatory in Zwickau. He taught her individually and when she was 8 years old, he also instructed her in a piano trio of her sister, Renate (12) on violin, and her brother, Andreas (13) on piano. When she was 12 years old in 1999, she won first prize at the National German Competition "Jugend Musiziert" ("Youth Makes Music") for chamber and solo playing. She won the same prize for several more years. In 2000, she won the family prize in this national competition with four of her siblings. At age 14 years in 2001, she received first prize and the special jury prize of the International Dotzauer Competition in Dresden and she went to study with the esteemed cellist, Peter Bruns, at the Carl Maria Von Weber Conservatory in Dresden.

When Marie-Elisabeth was 16 years old in 2003, she was awarded first prize of the Cultural Society of the German Business and Commerce Association. She gave a concert in London sponsored by the city of Dresden. She played Tchaikovski's "Rococo Variations" with the orchestra of Dresden and gave concerts in Holland, Munich, Cologne, Husum and Hamburg. She gave concerts sponsored by the Yehudi Menuhin Foundation "Live Music Now" and premiered a work of Wilhelm Killmayer, "Three Concert Pieces for Cello Solo" recorded "live" on CD. In 2004, she also recorded a CD of Kodaly's Sonata for Solo Cello in Berlin. The same year, she was honored with the "Scholarship of the German People". She played Shostakovich's 1st Cello Concerto with the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Zwickau-Plauen. She participated in the International Moritzburg Festival and played for Kurt Mazur at the occasion of his award of the "Westphalia Peace Prize", which was broadcast on radio and television.

She has had master classes with Bernard Greenhouse, Gary Hoffman, Frans Helmerson, Steven Isserlis, Leonid Gorokhov, Daniel Hope, Paul Watkins, Jonathan Tunnel, Peter Bruns, Maria Kliegel, and Anner Bylsma.

In 2005, she moved to Leipzig to continue her cello study with Peter Bruns at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy". In October 2005, she gave her American debut at New York City's renowned chamber music concert hall, Bargemusic. The next month, she participated in the International Rostropovich Cello Competition, which is held every four years in Paris. She played with her brother Martin on piano the 1st Cello Sonata of Prokofiev, which was written for Rostropovich, who premiered it with Sviatislav Richter in 1950. All the six finalists in Paris chose to play the same composition, the 1st cello concerto by Shostakovich. Marie-Elisabeth won the Grand Prize and two other special prizes -- the first time a cellist has won 3 prizes in the 30-year history of the competition.

Since May 2006, she is a member of the Elite Advanced School for Strings of the Kronberg Academy (Kronberg in Taunus, Germany). She is a featured soloist with Gidon Kremer and his Kremerata Baltica in concerts in Austria, Italy and elsewhere.

For the 2006/2007 season, she will play chamber music, sonatas by Schubert, Beethoven, Brahms, Debussy, Frank, Kodaly and cello concerti by Haydn, Vivaldi, Elgar and Shostakovich in Festivals in Cannes, Paris (Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Louvre, Musée d'Orsay), New York, Illinois (Woodstock Mozart festival), Kronberg ("Chamber Music Connects the World"), Frankfurt, Manchester, Lisbon, St. Petersburg, Kiev, Elba Festival (Italy), Orne (France festival), Madrid, etc.

She plays an Italian Bajoni cello from 1864, which is on loan to her by the Lösch Inherited Community under the directorship of Dr. W. Lösch.

Where were you born?

I was born in Zwickau, which is in the Saxony part of Germany.

How many people are in your family?

We are altogether ten with my parents and eight children.

How many brothers and sisters do you have?

It is a double quartet with my four brothers and three sisters.

Are you the oldest child of your parents?

No, I am the fifth.

Do some of your siblings play musical instruments?

Yes, everyone plays, all are studying or will be studying. However, my youngest sisters will probably not be able to do this professionally.

Have you always made music together?

Yes, we grew up with siblings playing together with other siblings, until a certain age. Studying in different cities makes this more difficult. But we make music together whenever we see each other.

What instruments does each person play and how old is each of them?

My two oldest brothers, Martin and Andreas, are 26 and 24, respectively. They both play the piano. My older sister, Renate, is 23 and plays the violin. A short while ago, she became second violin in the Staatskappele in Dresden. Thomas plays the oboe and he is now 21 years of age. My last brother, Friedemann, is 16 and he plays the viola. My two little sisters play the piano and the cello, and they are both 12 years old.

Do you practice with any of them?

The pieces I play I practice by myself. When we are going to give a concert together, naturally we practice together and talk things over. Otherwise, we practice by ourselves.

Have you often given concerts together with your brothers and sisters?


Was it sometimes difficult to concentrate with eight people practicing?

Well, we have a big house. It is a large Minister's House. And somehow one gets used to it. On the other hand, sometimes I had to practice in the room next to my sister's room, the one who plays the violin. Sometimes it became complicated. But we could always escape to a lower floor. So normally, it did not turn out to be a problem.

How did you first come to play the cello?

Ever since I was 4 years old, the cello was my favorite instrument. I first heard it in an orchestra performance, and ever since I heard it, I always wanted to learn to play it. Also, it has all extremes: You can play incredibly high tones in the upper register and beautiful tones in the lower register. It simply has a soft, full sound.

How did your first teacher, Wieland Pörner, work with you?

Unfortunately, I can hardly remember. I had instruction with him from the age of 5 years until I was 12 or 13 years of age. For the first years, I really can no longer remember. But I still remember that he always gave me very precise left hand finger exercises, scales, types of bow strokes, and later etudes. There was always technique checking. Like everybody else, I had to study technique in parallel with standard pieces.

I understand when you were 8 years old Wieland Pörner also instructed you in a piano trio with your older sister Renate on violin and your older brother Andreas on piano. How were your lessons organized?

I had an individual cello lesson once-a-week and a weekly chamber music lesson with my sister and brother.

What was different with your second teacher, Professor Peter Bruns?

For him, I had to change a lot of my technique. It started with sitting position. It is about playing for many years. Therefore, while you play, you have to watch your hands and body. In the beginning, I had to play many, many finger and other technical exercises. Once I had established my basic technique, in the last 3 � years, I really am not learning technique anymore. For me, it is about musical things and how one understands a piece of music. If Professor Bruns does not like something in a piece, he tells me, and most of the time, I know myself how he wants it to be played. Therefore, I can often work it out by myself.

Did you work with Peter Bruns on expressive dynamics � when you play more loudly or softly with the feeling of the music?

One always has to consider or take care of these things. We are working on the tone quality. This is how we work. We achieve the tone quality�piano and forte are not given categories. The important thing is to achieve the sound color ("Klangfarb") and then the dynamics come along with that.

I know you won many cello competitions in Germany prior to winning the Rostropovich Competition. How many people were in this competition?

Almost 200 people registered. Therefore, they made qualifying examinations in 4 different cities all over the world�Tokyo, Washington, Paris and Moscow. I also competed in the qualifying examination in Paris. Therefore, there were 90 participants, because about 90 made it through the qualifying examination.

How did you decide what to play for the competition?

Most of the pieces were mandatory. But there was a certain choice (among this group) of compositions. One of the pieces each contestant had to play was the "Elfentanz" ("Dance of the Elves") piece by Popper. For the rest, one had to play from the given selection. Then I decided what would be good for me and what I had already played before.

Why do you think everyone of the six finalists chose to play at the last round the 1st Shostakovich Concerto?

I think it leaves nothing up to chance, because it is a concerto where you cannot make too many musical, interpretive mistakes. With the other concerto compositions, your subjectivity plays a very large role. The Schumann, Prokofiev and Dvorak concertos can be interpreted many different ways. In the Shostakovich, the direction is already laid out. I also chose it because I had played it before with an orchestra in Dresden.

I know you won the overall grand prize and 2 special prizes. Which 2 special awards did you win there?

I received there two special prizes for the Shostakovich Concerto and the best interpretation of the obligatory modern piece by Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, which had been written specifically for the competition. The piece is called "Oyan" ("Wake Up") and it was sent to us one month before the competition. It is thirteen pages long.

Do you know if in the Rostropovich competition anyone has ever won three prizes?

No, I do not know.

I would like to ask you a technical question on your finger technique. You seem to play more with the flatter, softer part of your fingers in the manner of Rostropovich, rather than on the tips of your fingers in the manner of Yo-Yo Ma. Is that correct?

The tips of my fingers are very thick due to callouses through the hard part of the skin, and this part is much thicker than the rest of the fingers. It gives the impression that I am playing with the flat part of the finger. But that is really not so. If you want to produce a brilliant sound in a run, the notes have to be hit 100%, and this can only be achieved with rounded fingers. One can also do it differently and get a meatier tone by playing with flat fingertips. But one has to really be able to differentiate between these 2 things.

I am also interested to ask about your pizzicato. Many people use the index finger, and you mostly use the middle finger.

Yes, the middle finger.

Any special reason you prefer the middle finger?

I tried both in the beginning. In the beginning, I also played with the index finger. But it is smaller and I think with the middle finger one can get a stronger tone. Actually, one should be able to play pizzicato with every finger. As I am currently practicing the Debussy Sonata that is new to me, I have to think about it more carefully.

You seem to have very long fingers. Do you think you have longer fingers than most people?

Yes, that can be�.perhaps. It is also funny because my left hand, compared to the right hand, has much longer fingers. It is possible that the fingers of the left hand became longer, because I started to play at 5 years of age.

I guess that is possible with the stretching of the left hand compared to the right hand holding the bow. I am wondering if you practice scales when you warm up or do you mainly practice your pieces?

I practiced scales in the beginning, but I now I mostly play scales to warm up.

Do you do any particular exercises that you like?

I do specific exercises, such as percussive finger exercises, trills or fifth interval passages.

How did it happen that you came the first time to play in the United States?

Mark Peskanov, the violinist who is the artistic and executive director of Bargemusic in New York City asked my teacher if he knew of some good young musicians. Then he invited me to give 2 concerts in October 2005 with my brother, Martin, on piano.

What did you play there?

It was part of my competition program: Fauré's "Elégie," Hindemith's Solo Sonata, Beethoven's Sonata in C Major and Prokofiev's Sonata.

It is very nice that you returned this year in 2006 to play chamber music concerts with Mark Peskanov and the pianists Donna Weng-Friedman and Paul Ostrovsky at Bargemusic. How did you feel when you did not have enough time to practice for the concerts?

This was still very unfamiliar to me, because so far I would go to a concert perfectly prepared and rehearsed with my colleagues, and now this was absolutely not the case. But I find that there is also something to it when one has to adapt very quickly and it turned rather well.

Do you find it easy to play chamber music with people of such different cultural backgrounds and languages and is it completely different when you play with German musicians?

It is always different and interesting, when everyone comes from different countries. I can understand English, but I do not speak it very well. However, with music one can understand each other rather well and one knows exactly what the other means. All this can be expressed musically and this is exactly why it is so interesting when musicians of different cultural backgrounds and ways of playing can bring it all together.

What do you think about playing on a barge boat docked under the Brooklyn Bridge?

What a question! When I sit on the stage and the boat is rocking in the waves, I always want to bow towards the opposite direction. (Pause)�Yes, the opposite direction.

The audience was thrilled with your playing of Schubert's Arpeggione Sonata with pianist Donna Weng-Friedman. What do you think about that composition of Schubert?

Next to Shostakovich, Schubert is my favorite composer. What I love so much about it is what I love about all of Schubert's compositions. It is a style that I think cannot be found with any other composer. When one hears them, either one is completely sad or totally happy. One asks oneself all the time if it is because it sounds so deeply sad or so unbelievably beautiful. This being between laughing and crying makes him so unusual. One is totally taken by the music and one does not know why. It is simply beautiful.

Do you ever think in images when you play or do you think more aurally?

I do not know what I think about at the moment. Many people have asked me this question, but I really do not know it. It also varies�(pause). No, I really do not know.

I love your melodic phrasing. Can you explain how you interpret melodic phrasing?

Oh, that is difficult. That is really very difficult. The basis for the way I play, for instance, in the correct, technical manner, one learns through instruction. What one cannot learn is how to play from the heart. One must learn that for oneself, but it would be difficult for me to try to teach it to anyone. My teacher can do it exceptionally well, because it is through him that I have learned so much. The last step one has to take oneself and it depends on whether one has musical talent and can feel it oneself. To a certain degree, one can train oneself, but according to my opinion not completely.

And sometimes you close your eyes when you play.

Sometimes?...(Pause). Yes�.sometimes.

It seems that you close your eyes at times when you play concerti, cello sonatas, and even in chamber music.

In chamber music? �(Pause)�only if it's my solo (laughs). No, you have to be 100% certain of the conductor and one needs the interaction with other musicians. Otherwise, I always played with my eyes closed and I have always done that. In the future, I will try to play more often with my eyes open, because it also has its advantages. There is a disadvantage to lose oneself in the music and lose touch with reality.

Well, I think you communicate your feeling in the music very directly to the audience. It is also wonderful how you play with such freedom and spontaneity. Did you always play so freely or did you have to work to develop it?

I believe that this can be developed, especially because your own personality develops. This also plays a part in music. I can express myself best in music. Sometimes I find it difficult to express what I want to say myself in words. One can possibly see this in this interview (laughing). With music, I can open myself completely to other people.

August 6, 2006. ©David M. Abrams.

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