Holly’s Twitter Takeover – April 3, 2020

Have you ever tried a donair? Who is your favourite living conductor? How do you go about learning a piece you’re going to conduct? On Friday, April 3, 2020, Symphony Nova Scotia’s Music Director Holly Mathieson took control of our Twitter account to answer your questions and provide some more insight into the role of a conductor. Read on for all of her answers:


What advice on technique would you have for a beginner conductor?

Whichever school of technique you learn, its aim is to teach you how to be hyper-aware of every movement you make and the audible effect it has. We want every gesture to be considered and intentional, and to lose unconscious habits. So start with the most neutral gesture you can do. Once you feel comfortable with that, you can start to add musical “instructions” for the player with your gestures, based on what you see in the score. Crucially, it’s not about showing how we feel, but using technique to help the musicians play the work as well as possible.

Hey! Do you like working with young musicians? We know some young musicians who would love to work with you!! Thanks for being an inspiration to youth!! From the Maritimes largest youth music program, Halifax Regional Arts music!

I LOVE working with young musicians, and have done loads of it here in Scotland with @NYOScotland, @nyotweets, some cracking @londonsymphony education projects, and the incredible @LPOrchestra Juniors programme. I’m hoping to do the same in Canada.

Hi! Based on your previous visits, what do you like best about Halifax so far?

I absolutely love picking up something yummy to eat or homemade craft from @HfxSeaportMrkt and then heading down to Point Pleasant Park for a long walk, especially if there’s a sprinkling of snow on the ground!

A lot of us are turning to music to relieve the stress of the pandemic news. What are you listening to these days?

My husband @JonHargreaves5 and I had a listen to the new Bob Dylan single the other day, Murder Most Foul – incredible songwriting! We also sat and had a listen to Frank Martin’s Mass for Double Choir. I hadn’t heard it in its entirety for years. Staggering genius!

Here’s something I’ve always wondered, how do you go about learning a piece that you are going to conduct? Do you start by listening to it with the score in front of you?

Most conductors try to avoid listening to recordings, ‘cos you just learn someone else’s interpretation. I start by reading it in silence, analysing the structure and harmony, and make my way gradually to finer detail. Once I know it well to listen critically, I compare recordings.

We hope you will also become a champion of Canadian music 😀

I can’t wait to learn more! I already know and love works by @LauraSilberberg, @emily_doolittle, Violet Archer, Jean Coulthard, and @EstacioComposer.

Who are your favourite soloists?

I like artists who are into doing work that’s not just about their own virtuosity. @pekka_kuusisto is doing some really interesting stuff, @ABakerMezzo is a fascinating artist, and I’m hoping to collaborate with non-musos: puppeteers, dancers, visual artists.

Did you try a donair when you were in Halifax?

No! What on earth is that?! Next time…

Greetings from wet & soggy Scotland. Lucy, our daughter, had the pleasure of playing cello under you with NYOS Juniors & she says hello! We decided to ask a non-music-related question, and we were wondering if Nova Scotia is as rainy as Scotland?!!

Lucy! Hi! Hope you’re still singing and playing… I’ve only been to Halifax during the autumn (fall) around October/early November, and it was really bright and crisp with sunny blue skies. I think the winter bites pretty badly though…

Not thinking of what is already in the program for Symphony NS, but if you had no constraints, what would be your first piece for our orchestra to perform?

If the “no constraints” included plenty of space on stage and budget for a massive orchestra, I’d say a semi-staged performance of Schreker’s gargantuan opera Die Gezeichneten. It is lush beyond compare.

Who is your favourite living composer?

That’s a tough one… I think I’d have to say György Kurtág. He can evoke an entire alternate universe in 10 seconds of the sparsest chamber music. But I also love many of the new generation. Some awesome stuff coming out of Japan and parts of Scandinavia.

To get a sense of my taste, check out @annathorvalds, @ChristianRMason, @HannahKendall_, @stuart_macrae, @antoniabm, @SmiThoN_, #rebeccasaunders, #nicolalefanu, @michael_cryne, @composerbray and @bushraelturk.

Interesting choices for music are appearing here. Dead white European male composers aren’t doing well in your faves. Do audiences care that they aren’t hearing what they think orchestras play?

Ah, but that question was specifically about living composers. I also love dead ones. Specifically Prokofiev’s ballets, anything by Rachmaninoff, Schreker, some Korngold but not all, Schumann, Stravinsky’s ballets (I can’t get on with his neoclassical works). Plus a few outliers like Enescu, Takemitsu, Louise Farrenc, Lili Boulanger, William Grant Still…

Do you play any instruments?

The piano. Very badly. I was too lazy to be an instrumentalist. Actually, in all seriousness, my ex-colleague @ManusCarey once told me he had a theory that people who love the act of playing become instrumentalists, and people who love the musical material become conductors. That rings true! I never LOVED the piano. But I did love that it gave me access to analysis, harmony, exploration, playtime, expression, and history.

So a conductor is a lot like a music studio producer who shapes and “edits”, has a sense of what the sound could / should be, but isn’t necessarily into performing themselves?

Exactly! We’re usually quite objective, actually. Another good analogy is that we’re the pilot, but the players are the jet engine, wing flaps, etc. We help them stay on course, but we can flap our arms all we like and it won’t get the plane off the ground!

Do batons “choose the wizard”?

Weirdly, yes. It comes down to the shape of your hand, palm size, hand-to-arm ratio, etc. What you want is a little bit of drag at the tip of the baton, not too much weight in the handle, so that the expression happens right at the tip, not in your hand.

Hi Holly! How will you program your seasons – what should a symphonic orchestra season look like in 2020?

Ooh, this is a good ‘un. I think it should have the community – in the greatest sense – at its heart. Too many orchestras talk about “outreach” and “engagement” as satellite activities. It’s an admission that our normal business doesn’t necessarily reach out and engage.

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