Toby Deller

Meet the Maestro: Holly Mathieson

9:00, 14th September 2016

The new assistant conductor at the Royal Scottish National Orchestra says the only function of a conductor is to be helpful. She talks to Toby Deller

Although based in Europe for some time now, Holly Mathieson was born in Dunedin on the South Island of New Zealand, the ‘Edinburgh of the South’ whose name comes from the Scottish Gaelic words for that city. So it was perhaps inevitable that her first major senior orchestral appointment would be in … Glasgow.

The new assistant conductor at the Royal Scottish National Orchestra is already familiar with the city, having spent some time there as a student and as resident conductor of the junior section of the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland for the past year.

‘I love Scotland. My first connection was the Leverhulme fellowship for conductors at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, being mentored by Garry Walker, who’s just the greatest teacher I could have asked for. He’s phenomenal: he’s got that sardonic Scottish way of taking the piss out of you mercilessly without offending you, which is exactly what I respond to well as a student. And then NYOS came shortly after. There’s so much music going on up there, there’s funding for it, there’s hunger for it. There’s not the desperation that we have here in London where everyone’s just so anxious about paying the rent – there’s a bit more to go round.’

Although highly qualified academically (her PhD from the University of Otago looks at the role of their image, appearance and gestures in public appreciation of three late 19th/early 20th-century conductors in London), Mathieson says the fellowship gave her something that had been missing in her career progression. ‘Because I’ve never studied at a conservatoire in the UK or Europe, I was about as far from central music establishments as possible, I just didn’t get auditions for anywhere else. But it became a line on my CV which was establishment, which was legit.’

© Cathy Pyle
© Cathy Pyle

Up to that point she had been studying conducting privately in London, where her personal life had brought her in 2010, and going to masterclasses, residential courses and the like. She had also by then left behind a job as librarian at the Philharmonia. ‘Two years into my contract I thought: if I renew my contract, they would have to support my visa application, so living in the UK would have meant staying in the library business, basically. There had been a few signs that it was worth continuing with conducting – it had been my main source of income in New Zealand – so mid-2012 I resigned from the Philharmonia and moved to Berlin because I could get a freelance artist visa there – it’s the only place in Europe that you can. I did very little music in Berlin. Most of my contracts were here, but it meant I could do a three-month contract for an opera company and they could sponsor me.’

The big break, she says, came at the Hertfordshire music camp, Pigott’s, ‘a very last-minute Mahler Eight replacing Brad Cohen. I totally lied through my teeth and said, “Sure I can do that in two weeks”. But thank goodness I did. You just have to put your game face on, and as long as you know it’s going to be a hellish two weeks you can produce something useful. It was great, we had an amazing weekend – Pigott’s is like the heartland of good amateur-slash-professional music-making in the whole country.’

Her appearance led to various other engagements, so over time she has built up a body of experience that includes chorus directing at Opera Holland Park, assisting Donald Runnicles at the BBC Scottish as part of her fellowship and Marin Alsop at the Last Night of the Proms, not to mention regular visits to New Zealand to conduct there – she was due to head off to her local Dunedin Symphony Orchestra shortly after we met and will be back in the country this month for several dates elsewhere.

‘It’s funny with New Zealand. That orchestra have always been very supportive of their own. In New Zealand in general, they’ve made a concerted effort to be supportive of singers because there’s a huge number of brilliant singers – New Zealand Opera almost exclusively hires New Zealand singers, and they are a brilliant company, it’s totally warranted. Conducting is a bit different. There’s a fear in many countries about having local people conducting because you’re not exotic, and I think in New Zealand it’s fair to say there’s a small colony chip on the shoulder: how could someone from here possibly presume to know how Beethoven goes? That’s for the Europeans. I’m hoping that’s starting to turn round because I think audiences do now look forward to see New Zealand performers.’

She stresses that it is not an attitude unique to New Zealand, and in any case she makes it clear that the show should not really be about her. ‘For me, it comes down to one statement: the conductor’s job is to be helpful. Your only function is to be helpful: to players, possibly to the audience but certainly in rehearsal. You’re just being a set of ears for everyone, helping them hear things, helping them know what’s going on, doing traffic control and holding up a frame in which they can be creative and do wonderful things.’


1981 Born Dunedin, New Zealand
2010 Awarded PhD from University of Otago
2014-15 Leverhulme fellow in conducting, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland
2015 Christine Collins young artist conductor in association at Opera Holland Park
2015 Appointed resident conductor of the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland Junior Orchestra
2015 Appointed vocal director and lecturer in performance at Goldsmiths, University of London
2016 Takes up post as assistant conductor at the Royal Scottish National Orchestra

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