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A Podium of One's Own

Holly Mathieson

Conductor Holly Mathieson has always chartered her own course. Phil News Editor Tabatha McFadyen talks to her about her journey and her re-evaluation of the role of the arts in a post-COVID world.

Imagine standing on a podium in front of 70 or so elite musicians, the best of the best. Your job is to convince them to adhere to your vision of a piece of music they’ve likely played hundreds of times. Sometimes the experience is full of warmth and instant collegiality. Sometimes, no matter what you do, you’ll never win them over. I’m not sure I can imagine anything more terrifying.

New Zealand Conductor Holly Mathieson voluntarily puts herself in that position week after week. She admits that, at times, it’s not an easy gig. “I think all conductors, at their heart, are terrified that the orchestra hates them,” she says.

There were times when that anxiety was difficult to shake, particularly when she was a young woman just starting out, but experience has brought her greater certainty. “[I’ve realised] it’s not the orchestra’s job to tell me I’m doing well,” she says. “They’re allowed to love what I’m doing, they’re allowed to not like what I’m doing, they’re allowed to be indifferent. What I have to focus on is whether I feel I’m bringing something valuable into the room, something that’s of use.”

When I timidly ask her whether being “of use” and being in the occasionally esoteric world of classical music results in a conflict within her, she’s unashamedly honest: “Oh. Always. It kills me.”

But instead of wallowing in this ambivalence, she uses it as fuel. She steadily rose from her origins as a promising Dunedin student to assisting some of the world’s foremost conductors like Marin Alsop and Esa-Pekka Salonen. Now, as well as an increasingly busy calendar guest conducting with orchestras like the London Symphony, Royal Philharmonic and City of Birmingham, she is Music Director of Symphony Nova Scotia in Canada.

Plenty of conductors would stick to that path. After all, it’s obviously working!

But it’s clear that this desire to be useful won’t let her rest on her laurels. She is obsessed with the role that music can play in a community, constantly questioning and challenging norms.

Take for example, the Nevis Ensemble, the ‘street orchestra’, as she describes it, that she founded with her husband [fellow conductor Jon Hargreaves]. “It’s essentially been a weird social experiment: what happens when you just completely remove a whole lot of the things that we’ve assumed are essential as musicians for 200 years?”

The Nevis Ensemble performs literally anywhere. Swimming pools, parks, the Outer Hebrides. (Actually.) With the luxuries of purpose-built infrastructure taken away, what does happen?

“Yes, by our usual standards the music suffers a little bit and there’s certain repertoire you can’t do, but all these other brilliant things grow in its place. You see the musicians having quite significant personal growth and overcoming performance anxiety issues. We’ve had musicians come out of long depressions and deciding that they want their career to encompass working with children or the elderly…That would not have happened if we were doing a really posh Beethoven Nine somewhere.”

Even if she weren’t doing these extraordinary projects, Mathieson would still be different to the majority of her colleagues. As frustrating as it is to be needing to talk in terms of gender, the statistics don’t lie. Take the UK, for example, where Mathieson is based: according to the Royal Philharmonic Society, only 22 of the 371 conductors represented by British agents are female – about 5.5%.

We broach the subject talking purely about the physicality of it. After all, Mathieson trained originally as a dancer, so discussing the sheer physics of the act always fascinates her, she says.

“We saw a lot of women conductors coming through in the 80s who were very self-consciously masculine in some way, as though they felt they had to become more masculine to earn the right to be there or something. I think that’s changed in the last ten years – that’s why you have these tremendous young women now in the industry who are just themselves. I personally think for anyone of any gender or physicality, the only thing that matters is to be authentic.”

She has done some musical activity during the COVID-19 lockdown, but she’s chomping at the bit to get back to the concert hall, as she will be leading APO at the Opera . Like so many, she has a renewed sense of appreciation for it.

“I think it’s been a huge lesson for people. Listening to an excellent recording – while it’s a cool thing to have access to, and God, what an amazing marvel of modernity – it’s just not the same as witnessing people try to do something completely wacky and challenging in a large group. For me, the beauty is not actually in the surface of it, it’s in the inner workings, the cogs of the act of music as an exertion of group will.

“That’s why we should be doing everything, in our pandemic-challenged way, to maintain mass art-making: the immense value of it to us as a community. It’s cathartic. It’s hopeful.”

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