Brahms with Symphony Nova Scotia and Holly Mathieson


Holly Mathieson, conductor
Symphony Nova Scotia

On the Program:
Brahms: Symphony No. 2

Live Post-Concert Q&A with Music Director Holly Mathieson, Principal Cello Rachel Desoer, and Principal Horn David Parker:

Original performance: November 7, 2019, Rebecca Cohn Auditorium, Halifax

Hear Symphony Nova Scotia perform Johannes Brahms’ warm, lush, and radiant Second Symphony with Holly Mathieson, who was appointed as the orchestra’s Music Director in December 2019.

About the Music
Composed: 1877 / Premiered: 1877, Vienna / Duration: 42 minutes

Like many of Johannes Brahms’ works, his Second Symphony is the product of a summer holiday. He sketched it during the summer of 1877, while on a lakeside vacation at Pörtschach in Carinthia. Brahms wrote of this idyllic spot, “So many melodies fly about, one must be careful not to tread on them.”

For all the cunning and complexity of its construction, the Second Symphony reflects the tranquil, relaxed, sunny atmosphere of rural Austria before the motor-car and the tourist. Some of its tunes recall Austrian folk-songs, with their three-quarter rhythms and sweet major tonalities. Clara Schumann, Brahms’ closest friend and most perceptive admirer and critic, described it as “merry and tender.”

“The Brahms was beautifully balanced and shaped.”
– Audience review


Conductors always have an affinity for certain repertoire, and find other patches of music difficult to connect with. Our formative music listening has a big influence on it, but also things as basic as the length of our arms or our height can completely change the sound or energy of a piece. I don’t mean that certain people (or, rather, bodies) can’t do certain repertoire. More that, quite literally, we imprint something of ourselves on every piece we do, simply through the physical act of conducting it. In the same way that every violin has a slightly different “voice”, so does every conductor’s body.

I find the straight, clean sounds of things like Stravinsky’s neoclassical works, or Schubert’s symphonies, very hard to situate in my body. Berlioz is a complete mystery to me. Conducting them feels like learning the salsa for ten years and then dropping into a tap-dancing class — I have enough transferable gestures to cope, but I’m terrified of clomping on my dance partner’s toes! By contrast, Brahms’ scores are like curling up on the couch in my favourite slippers with the fire on.

One of the things I love most about Brahms’ symphonic writing is the way he doesn’t erect any sort of performance-ready artifice around it. He hasn’t cleaned and polished it before taking it out of his shed, and he doesn’t make any attempt to disguise the tool-marks. The process of analysing, playing, and listening to his four symphonies is like revealing the grain of the timber, seeing the grooves of his thumb prints and chisel, running your hands over the nail heads and exploring the box joints holding the walls of the piece together. The structure IS the piece, yet it is also full of love, warmth, and a generosity of sound. It is the music of a craftsman and humanitarian, I think.