Classic Music: The Future is Female

Holly Mathieson by Martin Stewart.
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The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s Fantastique is an ode to dreaming, featuring Toru Takemitsu’s Dreamtime (Yume no toki), Dorothy Ker’s The Third Dream and Berlioz Symphonie’s Fantastique. Kiwi Conductor Holly Mathieson talks to express about her industry’s delve into digital and the magic of Hermione Grainger.

In your eyes how is the classical music industry changing and what differences do you suspect we will see come to fruition over the next decade?

The shift to digital has been piecemeal and really lacking in sophistication in the classical music industry. The pandemic has made that glaringly obvious. It’s also shown how unsustainable the professional touring economy is. So, I think there’ll be a huge investment in digital innovation, gamification and interactive content in classical music. There’ll also be a major cultural shift to using our resources to support local and amateur music-making, and enable creative expression at home, online and in the community. I’m incredibly excited about it! 

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Why in 2021 do you think there are still so few female conductors and do you see this improving?

The energy around getting more women conducting has been great, but you have to remember it can take about 10-15 years of training before a conductor really establishes themselves professionally, and life situations like parenting will add years to that pathway.

It’s also really important to realise that for all of that energy and activism around gender, about 99% of the women getting through those hallowed doors are white, able-bodied and have had access to a world-class education. We say we’re big on diversity, but it seems only if it looks and sounds familiar to us. It’s incumbent upon those of us coming through to make sure we wedge the door open, lean back with a helping hand to those not treading the traditional paths, and adjust the industry from the inside. 

Do you feel there are people in the industry who really believe a woman shouldn’t conduct and have you knowingly ever met them?

In my experience, if you come into the room well-prepared, with something intelligent to say about the music and trustworthy technique; nobody bats an eyelash at your gender. In fact, in many parts of the world right now, it is a huge boon to be a woman conductor – there is positive discrimination in place to balance the scales, and an enormous amount of interest from agents, promoters and recording companies because they know there is greater public scrutiny and accountability.

That said, in rehearsal, I think some musicians are more likely to let women know if they don’t think they’re working at a high enough level, and they won’t be polite about it. It really takes a huge amount of self-control and objectivity to receive stinging criticism, and be able to ask yourself ‘hang on, is this because they are uncomfortable having a woman on the podium this week? Or is it valid criticism about my ideas or technique, and something I need to work on?’ 

You’ve played all over the world. How does a Kiwi audience and compare with others?

There aren’t many other countries in the world where everyone in the audience still goes out in the interval to have an ice cream even in the middle of winter!

When meeting new people how do you describe your job?

Like directing a film – everyone else operates the cameras, sews the costumes and plays the roles, but we have to understand how all of those separate activities synthesise and be able to guide everyone towards decisions that contribute cohesively to the whole.

Think: Hermione Grainger, but without the magic.

Town & Country plays Auckland (20 May), Hamilton (21 May), and Christchurch (21 May). For more information and tickets visit nzso.co.nz

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