A female for the job

Holly Mathieson. Photo by Martin Stewart.

By Dan Poynton

Featured in Capital #77
Subscribe to get the real thing here.

Holly Mathieson will conduct the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra for the first time when she visits in May. Dan Poynton catches up with her at her home in Glasgow by vid-call.

New Zealander Holly will conduct the NZSO in three concerts over the next couple of months. Conducting symphony orchestras is the ultimate macho job in classical music; and let’s be honest, it’s still unusual to see a woman whipping the troops into order, up on that patriarchal podium, especially with top orchestras like the NZSO.

But a new generation of female conductors are confident this is historic, and are giving crusty old maestros a run for their money.

For Holly the issue’s all a bit passé. “It’s kind of interesting to not talk about it,” she says, looking like she wants to yawn. And that’s not because it’s 10pm in Glasgow; she’s bursting to talk about stuff. Just not women-conductor stuff. “It’s actually a bonus to be a woman for my generation. Look at the three New Zealand conductors at the moment who are forging ahead and making careers – we’re all women.” The other two she means are Gemma New and Tianyi Lu, also rising international stars.

The NZSO is hosting a record three female conductors this year – Holly, Gemma and pioneering US conductor Marin Alsop. And just three male conductors – such gender equality is rare in this business. The NZSO could list for us only 10 female conductors in its entire history – and that’s not bad for an international orchestra. 

Why don’t they think it’s a big deal these days? After all, famous female conductors don’t spring to mind, and the Google doesn’t even list one woman if you search for “great conductors”.

“In the UK it’s now very normal. There are loads of us,” says Holly. “There’s been an explosion of talent and interest – same in parts of North America.” She says a colleague was talking to some kids after a children’s concert recently. “She asked them if they’d like to be a conductor when they grow up, and a wee boy said ‘Oh no, it’s a girl’s job’, because he’d only ever seen women conducting!” Though Holly admits a lot of European orchestras tend to give their women conductors the less glamorous jobs – the education and family concerts, rather than the Mahler symphonies. “They’re incredibly important work, but I worry some orchestras use that as their way of getting the diversity tick.”

Holly says a big reason women have been put off conducting is plain old gender stereotyping. “A young girl’s job is to be pretty – to look slim, not make unattractive faces or whatever. Of course as a conductor, you’re not doing your job if you’re holding your stomach in or trying not to get a double chin. You just have to be totally free physically, and that’s a wonderful thing to do as a woman. And it is shocking when you first see it.”

But Holly’s upbringing helped protect her against these old femininity tropes.  “I was surrounded by women running the world. I didn’t think anything of it. And my mum is the heart of the family. She’s a matriarch – a very powerful woman.” Holly is very grateful to her mother because she’s always loved the arts but isn’t an arts practitioner. “She has a much healthier relationship to it in terms of keeping one’s life balanced. That was a very important lesson to learn.”

Ironically perhaps, there’s something distinctly feminine and Swan Lake-ish about Holly’s movements when she conducts. At 16 she went off to study ballet at the New Zealand School of Dance in Wellington, but illness and injuries forced her home to Dunedin.  “I’m not naturally built like a dancer. I’m five foot one and shaped like Betty Boop,” she laughs. But the dancing has evidently helped her project in gravity-defying ways. “My mum always says ‘I find it so weird when I watch you conducting because all of a sudden you look enormous!’.”

In her teens Holly often stepped in to conduct her school choir, and while studying music at Dunedin University she was encouraged to do more. “I just took to it, but I think that’s very much because of the ballet background. I knew how to think about my movements critically.” Later she ended up in London, still conducting small gigs here and there, but not daring to hope for a real conducting career. However with persistence she finally got a break and became assistant conductor at the BBC Scottish Symphony. Now, after a career conducting top orchestras such as the London Symphony and Philharmonia, she is the first ever female musical director of the Symphony Nova Scotia in Canada.

But now Holly has made it as an international conductor, she wonders if women conductors shouldn’t be shaking things up more. “So you’ve broken through glass ceilings and you’re smashing the patriarchy and all of this, but you just get hired to do the exact same programmes that white men have been doing for 200 years. Why do we shake hands and bow and do all those funny rituals? Actually by doing it the same I’m not smashing it – I’m endorsing it.” And she says the orchestral world is a long way from true diversity and equality. “What will be amazing is when we can look at the podium and see a black woman – or someone in a wheelchair.”

But could efforts to “decolonise” this old and quintessentially Western art form by imposing diversity just lower the quality? “Some of the most phenomenal young players I know are from other ethnicities. They haven’t been not getting the jobs because they aren’t good enough! To say that orchestras at the moment are meritocracies is bullshit.” Diversity is necessary to keep classical music alive, she said.  “We should be welcoming people in because the art form has been stagnant for 200 years.”

Holly says many orchestras love hiring women conductors because they come up with unexpected and diverse programmes, thinking differently from men. She doesn’t know if this is more a matter of nature or nurture, but she alludes to elemental forces. “If you’re someone who menstruates, you have a totally different understanding of the effect on your physical self of time than someone who doesn’t.  But I don’t think it changes the tempo we conduct or anything!” she smiles.

And with the NZSO, Holly will be taking on the intoxicating Symphonie Fantastique by the radical 19th-century firebrand Berlioz, in a concert of “night, sleep, and dreaming”– with their archetypal lyrics feminine associations. In his Symphonie, Berlioz takes us on an hallucinatory journey through his famously opium-fuelled dreams. “He’s bonkers! It’s no secret that a lot of the romantic composers took a lot of very heavy drugs.” Holly will be conducting this seminal masterpiece for the first time. “It’s terrifying! It’s genuinely like wearing the wrong size shoes, so who knows what will come out, but I’m sure we’ll find something interesting to do with it!”

Legendary Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu will also feature, with his Australian Aboriginal-inspired Dreamtime. “Beautiful, beautiful music!” says Holly. Finally, she has specially chosen The Third Dream, by New Zealand composer Dorothy Ker.  “I’ve been to dinner at Dorothy’s – I’ve gotten drunk with Dorothy – but I’ve never conducted her music!” she laughs. “We programmed it not just because it’s by a Kiwi – these three pieces work so well together.”

There’ll also be a concert with Alien Weaponry, currently taking New Zealand by storm. “It’s brilliant – a thrash metal band singing in te reo Maori.” Of genres for popular/classical mashups, “probably metal is one of the better ones to put with a live orchestra – both open up possibilities for the other. But it won’t be polite string backing tracks – this’ll be proper orchestra in the mosh pit noise!” beams Holly, at well past midnight Scottish time. I try politely to let her go to bed, but she’s not interested. Holly seems keen to keep the music party going.


Sign up to our newsletter