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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

20 questions with Holly Mathieson

Holly is one of two finalists in Symphony Nova Scotia's search for a new music director

Meet award-winning conductor Holly Mathieson, one of two finalists in Symphony Nova Scotia’s search for a new music director.

20 Questions with Holly Mathieson

1. Your first job.

My first proper job as a teenager was as a bra-fitter and salesperson in a lingerie department. I was absolutely hopeless at the sales side of it. I couldn’t stand trying to convince people to spend more than they intended to. So, I switched to working in the hospitality sector, working in the reception and guest services departments in hotels. It suited my personality much better and saw me through my undergrad and master’s degrees.

2. The job you always wanted as a child?

  • Mad dream #1 – professional bagpipes player
    Mad dream #2 – lolly shop owner
    (Slightly less) Mad dream #3 – marine biologist (I’m not convinced I really knew what that entailed…)
  • But, from the age of about ten ballet took over, and it was my greatest dream to dance professionally.

3. Your pet peeve.

I’m pretty easy-going, so I don’t have anything that really grinds my gears (perhaps my husband would disagree). I do struggle to walk behind slow dawdlers on a city street, however. I’ve never seen much point in taking longer to do something or go somewhere than needed. I’m a hyper-efficient walker and doer.

4. Your hero.

The greatest heroes I’ve ever met are all dogs: service dogs, rescue dogs, companions for those who are socially isolated, the four-legged family members who love and protect their human lack with such genuine love and devotion. We don’t deserve them.

5. Your biggest indulgence.

I demand posh tea.

6. One thing no one knows about you.

I’m a pretty fly Xbox gamer. My favourite titles are the Assassins Creed and Far Cry series, and the superb golden oldie, Fable.

7. Three things you would want with you on a deserted island.

  • My Xbox, with a solar power converter, naturally!
  • My favourite tea mug, currently, the British Library “Cat Who Walked By Himself” mug. It features my favourite childhood story and is chunky enough to keep my brew piping hot
  • A friendly dog

8. The one word your best friend would use to describe you.

Absent. Alas, a hazard of my profession.

9. If they made a movie about your life, who would it star?

Betty White from The Golden Girls, if she could be persuaded to effect a New Zealand accent; my husband, Jon, would have to be played by Liam Neeson, his long-lost celebrity twin.

10. Hero or villain?

We’re all a little bit of both, either in essence or in others’ perceptions.

11. Your life’s motto/mantra.

It’s not what happens to you that matters, but what you do with it.

12. Your favourite composer.

There are many I like to play and listen to, but only one whose talents I wish I’d been born with: György Kurtág.

13. The last book you read.

Was awful. I won’t inflict it on you.

14. If you were a cartoon character, what cartoon character would you be?

I’d love to say Catwoman, but I think Garfield is probably closer to the truth.

15. What will it say on your grave marker?

Libate with Earl Grey.

16. Who would you most like to have dinner with?

My husband! I’ve not sat down and had a proper meal with him for nearly three months.

17. Your idea of happiness.

Contentedness, with nothing I feel the need to improve, enlarge, enhance or expand.

18. If you could go back in time, what would you tell your twenty-year-old self?

Learn to say no – to unnecessary food, booze, men and work.

19. The one thing in your life that makes you most proud.

We‘re slowly renovating a lovely old Georgian Tenement in Glasgow. It’s nearly 200 years old, warped, crumbling, creaky and full of character, and I don’t get to spend much time there. But as someone who had been travelling and renting for nearly 20 years before we bought it, I derive immense pleasure from sorting it out, one romantic old corner at a time, and knowing it has some permanence.

20. Your best advice to an aspiring musician.

Don’t fall for the idealisation of composers, musicians and conductors. The only “great” part of our trade is our service to our communities (and what a dreadfully baggage-laden term “great” is, anyway). If we place our own egos ahead of that, we fall head-first into charlatanism and unwittingly preserve the toxic aspect of the music world that has kept the door closed to ethnic minorities, women, the less-affluent, and those with disabilities.

Meet Holly Mathieson

From New Zealand, Holly Mathieson was most recently assistant conductor at the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and has conducted orchestras throughout the United Kingdom and New Zealand, including the London Symphony, BBC Concert, and Royal Philharmonic. Mathieson holds a Ph.D. in Music Iconography, and in 2016 was named one of New Zealand’s Top 50 Women of Achievement.

You can follow Holly on Twitter and Instagram or find out more on her website at

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