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Q & A: Holly Mathieson

Conductor Holly Mathieson recently founded the Nevis Ensemble - Scotland's newest and only street orchestra, and kicked off with the wild idea of a national tour - 70 concerts in 14 days. We had to find out more!

Kia ora Holly. Thanks for taking some time to catch up with the Arts Foundation. Firstly, can you tell us about your trajectory to becoming a conductor?

I studied piano and harmony from the age of 3 with my grandmother (an award-winning concert pianist in her day), alongside ballet. I also studied composition with Associate Professor Jack Speirs at Otago University through high school, and assisted Tecwyn Evans at my high school choir. Actually, ballet was my first love, but injuries and illness forced me to leave the NZ School of Dance in my first year. I couldn't bring myself to go back and do the last year of high school - once you're out of uniform, it's soul-destroying to consider having to go back into it! - so I started a music degree instead.

Prof Speirs was also the conducting teacher, and urged me to take it up. While I was an undergrad, I worked with choirs and opera choruses, then did a masters in Melbourne with John Hopkins. I came back to NZ in 2004, and did a PhD, while building up a body of work in opera and symphonic repertoire. I owe Opera Otago and Dunedin Symphony (then the Southern Sinfonia) a huge amount. After moving to London in 2010, I paid the bills by working as the librarian at the Philharmonia Orchestra, while getting private lessons and attending some of the big international masterclasses. It didn't really change in a major way until I took up the Leverhulme Fellowship at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. It has been like a rollercoaster ever since! I still get to use my body, so the years of ballet training weren't wasted.

It's fantastic to see more woman in prominent conducting roles today. Have you seen a shift in the industry?

Absolutely. It's still hard for women to get an agent at the same career stage as men, but more orchestras are looking for women to get in as guests; some enthusiastically, and some due to industry and media pressure. There is still some reluctance to give women big subscription gigs - we get stuck in education and pops work longer than the equivalent of our male colleagues. But I think that will shift soon, too. The biggest hurdle is the time it takes to grow a conductor. From all of this energy and advocacy, we won't really see significant results for another 10-15 years, at the earliest.

You've been going from strength to strength in your conducting career. Can you tell us about some highlights from the last couple of years?

A last-minute Mahler 8 on a farm in the Cotswolds is pretty high on the list, along with Rite of Spring with the London Symphony Orchestra, on one short rehearsal, for an audience full of teenagers. My first Nutcracker season was utter bliss.

What is it like coming in as a guest conductor with a new orchestra for the first time? how do you prepare?

It's terrifying, usually. Every orchestra is different in terms of their internal politics, level of hostility toward whoever is on the podium, preferred rehearsal style. And as someone relatively early in their career, usually without the benefit of having conducted the repertoire before, it means you're anxious on manifold levels! But, I find as long as I'm well prepared, and can enter the first rehearsal with a definitive perspective on the piece, I'm ok.

You are co-artistic director of the Nevis Ensemble, Scotland's newest and only street orchestra - and you've kicked off with the wild idea of a national tour - 70 concerts in 14 days. What sparked this idea and what are the highlights so far?

It is an utterly mad prospect, but we've played for amazing people, in beautiful places: homeless shelters, psych wards, village halls, community vege gardens, a nuclear protest camp, at the top of the highest mountain in the UK, and - this morning - for a community group for adults with learning difficulties who were so interactive and engaged with what we were doing. It has taught me, more than any other experience, the power of music to transform people's lives. There've been many cuddles, laughs and tears with strangers over the last week!

Our motto is "music for everyone, everywhere." The co-artistic director is my husband, Jon Hargreaves, and the players are a mix of students, amateurs, pros, all of who donate their time for the two weeks to play for free. It's a constant learning curve on how to programme on the fly, work with incredibly diverse audiences, and get REALLY fit. Also, for myself, it's great to do work where the primary aim is the quality of the audience's experience: the pursuit of high quality music making is a means to an end, not an end in itself. It sounds mad, but we lose sight of how much anxiety we carry, daily, related to the pursuit of perfection in our own work. It's so unhealthy, and little wonder that recent studies have found classical musicians in the UK have the highest rate of anxiety and depression related mental health problems in the full gamut of musicians. It has utterly transformed my work to have an intensive period of setting that aside a little, in favour of more audience-focused concerns. Interestingly, the level of music-making hasn't dropped. If anything it's higher. But only because of the players' own goodwill and motivation to give of themselves in every gig.

Nevis is its own social and political microcosm - the players have a really major hand in choosing and building the culture of the ensemble, and are quite self-governing. It's built on the model of Amsterdam's Ricciotti Ensemble, who toured here last year. That went so well, the Scottish contact for them decided to start his own version. Some of the Ricciotti players have joined us this summer, along with players from a street orchestra in London, Street Orchestra Live. We've taken on quite a few of their routines, like how to unpack a bus and be ready to play in a matter of minutes. That takes planning and precision!

The ensemble has a strong socialist drive, and we work really hard to be as agile and flexible we can be, so that we can take music where larger, more formally organised orchestras can't. It means we're not in competition with our colleagues in RSNO, BBC Scottish etc - they simply couldn't do what we're doing, for contractual and in some cases, legal, reasons. We nearly got arrested last week for just turning up in a shopping mall to play, unannounced. But, we played anyway: the entire shopping centre came out onto the balconies to listen, sing, dance - and today we got an email from the manager asking if we could please come back regularly. I'm guessing the charges have been dropped... Also, I doubt any other orchestra could navigate the health and safety measures required to get an entire orchestra, with instruments, to climb a 1345 metre peak and play the Proclaimers at the summit for an audience of Syrian refugees. There is no protocol for that. You just have to be straight up with the people involved, and do everything you can to support them and keep them willing to give 120%.

Any near disasters?

Other than the security guards? It was a wind chill of about 3 degrees at the top of the mountain, raining sideways, and one of our horns had a broken boot for most of it, so descended with a flapping boot sole. Crazy... How are we alive?!

What do you hope to achieve with the ensemble?

It is a positive, gentle revolutionary act, really. Bringing joy to people who are remote - geographically, socially, politically, psychologically - and helping good, ordinary people party hard to a 40-piece orchestra. Many people we've met on the road have said they've never heard a live orchestra before, that they assumed classical music wasn't for people like them, that it is snobbish. But we have them whooping and stomping to Bartok, roaring at the end of Mendelssohn and Beethoven, on the podium conducting Abba, and dancing Scottish Reels in the aisles. In some ways, it required us to drop our preconceptions of what we do, in order to be welcomed into these communities. I can't really imagine doing it any other way, at the moment. I took a day out to do a gig with BBCSSO the other day, and it felt so strange to be wearing dress shoes and looking out at an orchestra of people in black, seated so politely. It makes you question so many of our rituals and practices. That can only be a good thing! There's a tour of the outer Hebrides in the planning stages for next year, an ambitious and ardent desire to commission new work for every project, and I secretly hope that one day we'll be able to find the funding for a trip to NZ and the Pacific Islands. Ideas gratefully received!

When can we expect to see you next in New Zealand?

My agent might be negotiating a project in 2019 or 2020, I think, but in the meantime I'll be over for a hard-earned holiday this Christmas!

Find out more about the Nevis Ensembe