What happens in an organisation with intentionally diffuse leadership? Conductors and spouses Holly Mathieson and Jon Hargreaves share Artistic Directorship of the Nevis Ensemble in Scotland. They've found that rather than giving two people 50% of the responsibility for the artistic health of the ensemble, it has proven to be a way to deliver twice as much value to everyone involved.
Conducting is a privileged and thrilling career – at its best, the opportunity to be at the helm of inspiring creative projects, working with extraordinary minds and creative spirits around the world, and engaging with big ideas and ideals. Music Directorships offer the chance to extend that stewardship over a long period, imbibing and influencing the culture of what and how an orchestra plays, its strategic direction, audience culture and place in the wider community. But, for all this connection, it can also be a lonely job – weeks on end in hotels, concert halls and airports, away from loved ones for long periods and without the camaraderie of a section of players around us.
When both people in a couple live separate touring lives, that isolation is further compounded. Pre-pandemic, our work routinely kept us sequestered in different time zones for weeks, or sometimes months, and there was no guarantee that our trips home to Glasgow would coincide. So, when the opportunity came for us to work together on a new project at home in Scotland, we grabbed it eagerly, despite knowing very little of what Nevis Ensemble Chief Executive Jamie Munn and Co-Founder Jude Walsh had in mind. In retrospect, it's probably for the best that we didn't. I'm not sure either of us realised at the time how enriched we would be by sleeping on village hall floors and eating leftover vegan curry on a bus with 40 musicians. (Disclaimer: on the last summer tour, we took our tent so that we could have at least a few nights of relative luxury, when the Hebridean weather and midges allowed.)
We’ve come to realise that the benefits of having two conductors sharing the Nevis podium extend far beyond our marital harmony. Our collaboration benefits us both as musicians, provides twice as much support to the players and management team, and it even alters the concert experience for our audiences. It might be a little unusual in the orchestral world to share the artistic leadership in this way, but other sectors have already seen the double-bulbed light. In politics, Green parties around the world have operated on the basis of shared, gender-equitable leadership for decades, a trend which is gradually extending to those of other political stripes, such as Aotearoa New Zealand's Māori Party. Small pockets of the business world are also trying out more dispersed leadership structures, citing as measurable benefits: access to a broader range of executive skills, a greater degree of accountability and equity, and the empowerment of others lower down in the organisation's structure. The idea of flattened hierarchies is not without its detractors however, particularly in professional cultures which value traditional, hierarchical leadership styles. Vision and strategy, it is argued, cannot be delegated. Well, certainly not, if our motivational models continue to be based on pyramid structures (with their attendant Pharaohs), heroic icons or the more prosaic dangling carrot.
Few could deny the thrill of hearing an orchestra at the top of its game: rarely do so many people synchronise to the nearest microsecond to achieve such a unified, complex and – frankly - beautiful task. It is a compelling thing to witness, and as orchestras have become larger and music more complex over the centuries, a compelling and authoritative musical leader at the front has become at the very least useful, if not necessary.
As the modern conductor materialised in the mid-19th Century, audiences, critics and even musicians themselves turned to Industrial, Napoleonic or Deific metaphors to try to explain the alchemy they saw on stage. How else to frame the sight of one man, disciplining/organising/mesmerising a mass of individuals into a machine capable of producing a performance greater than the sum of its parts, a gargantuan extension of the composer’s – and, subsequently, the conductor’s – will.
To a considerable extent, that basic model still exists in both the public imagination and the organisational structures of most orchestras (though, thankfully, the figure on the podium is starting to look a little more representative of society as a whole!) But if those involved are honest, it is far more of a group effort, and the process is rarely so streamlined. Alongside the complexities of the musical task itself, the communication of that effort to the audience is reliant on "ideal" conditions, which are of course vulnerable: What if the conductor is tired or distracted, and makes a mistake? What if you’re seated next to a noisy breather in the audience (yes, I do think nostril trimmers should be sent out with concert tickets)? What if the cor anglais player is stuck on a train and misses the concert? What if – clutch your pearls – a mobile phone goes off, or a child calls out?
There are also significant downsides to the attendant and entrenched hierarchy; the conductor's position at the top (or, rather, at the front) can lead to fixed musical outcomes, the constraint of players' creativity and autonomy, and a barrier not only between the conductor and players (one which tends to be held in place from both sides of the divide, to varying degrees), but also between performers and audience, which can be difficult - some might argue disadvantageous - to bridge. Breaking the fourth wall?! Only if the people on the other side of it don’t distract us from our endeavour, or ruin the experience for other audience members.
Nevis Ensemble is by no means the perfect alternative, but it does show what can happen when we circumvent the vulnerability and fragility of it all by sending a bulldozer through the base of the pyramid and letting it wobble. Cracks appear – gaping chasms, at times – but rather than eroding the structure, they provide unexpected havens for other sorts of growth, microcosms which promote unexpected values, interactions and behaviour. A new structure emerges, with different strengths.
We rarely perform in typical concert spaces, so we rarely have perfect acoustics. We spread our activity over a very broad base of repertoire, and have far too little rehearsal time. We do hold auditions, as a certain standard of playing is required to come on tour, but this is more to ensure that the difficulty of the music won’t be a barrier to anyone’s participation than awarding (or withholding) places within a ranking system. We also ask players to do spontaneous, creative tasks away from their instruments as part of their audition. It is important to us that they can learn to lead audience participation, and play just as confidently in early childhood, healthcare or challenging social settings.
We genuinely value the social and practical contributions of the orchestra members on a par with their contributions as players; all of us share cooking, cleaning and stage management tasks. As a result, we've witnessed substantial personal growth, positive shifts in mental health and genuinely delightful branches of self-directed and entrepreneurial activity emerge among the players.
We extend that open-ended philosophy to the audiences we meet: no type or size of audience is any more legitimate or deserving of our endeavours than any other. On one tour, we played for a crowd of hundreds one night, and one man and his dog the next morning. We’ve played for (and been conducted by) the First Minister of Scotland; we’ve played for workers in a warehouse during their tea-break; we’ve played at the Glasgow City Mission, just hours after one of their regular users was set alight as they slept in a nearby doorway (on this occasion, the sense of welcome, quiet connection between musicians and audience, and communal agreement that singing and dancing together was the best way to respond to life’s vagaries, was palpable). It’s utopian, sure – full-time professional ensembles could not adopt this model wholesale without close to 100% state funding. But in a time of reflection on the systemic, patriarchal legacies carried forward, both on and off stage, Nevis provides both a robust and undeniable challenge to the status quo, and a tantalising glimpse of possible alternatives.
That two conductors share the podium is quite a unique thing to Nevis, and we’ve come to realise it is a crucial ingredient in establishing this unique network of conditions. For the two of us, it gives us a chance to share our knowledge of specialist repertoire with each other, draw from a far broader base of knowledge and opinion when programming the tours, consult with each other about the pacing of the concerts, monitor each other’s health and energy levels on long tours, and provide support to each other on gruelling days. It also means that when one of us is waving their arms, the other can be listening more acutely to the ensemble to keep track of their musical health and energy, going out into the audience to start conga lines, handing out flyers to promote our work in the community, helping out with extra percussion duties, or having a well-earned cuppa.
What insights could other orchestras glean from our experience, if they are tempted to take the red pill and dive head-first into shared artistic leadership? For one thing, it opens up real and practical ways for bringing about equitable representation, beyond right-on Instagram posts and specialist diversity weeks or concerts. In the case of Nevis Ensemble, it gives us a balanced (albeit, binary) gender mix; the model could just as easily be repurposed to ensure conductors of underrepresented ethnicities, or those working with disabilities, are brought to the leadership positions they deserve - though, let me stress, it should not require dual leadership for that to occur. I would encourage you to see dual leadership as a way to increase a wealth and diversity of ideas, leadership styles and skills to the organisation, as opposed to a sticking plaster over an HR problem. That is to say, don't use it to fix a perceived deficit; rather, think of it as a wonderful tool to give you access to a surplus you didn't realise was possible.
Having no fixed point of direction in front has taken some getting used to for the musicians, but in turn, they have developed a far greater sense of personal responsibility, initiative and creativity. It has also meant that spaces with impossible sightlines or cavernous dimensions can be transformed - aurally and visually - by spatialised performances, with both of us conducting a different subsection of the orchestra simultaneously, opening up the range of places in which (and therefore the range of communities to which) we can perform. In 2020 we commissioned our first 2-conductor work, Breathe and Draw from composer Alex Ho.
Overall, and at its furthest remove from orthodox orchestral culture, Nevis is firmly about individuals. We try our best to recognise that the orchestra is a set of individuals, performing for an audience full of individuals, in the hope that experiences shared at this level lead to more connected communities - even if just for the length of the performance. So, above all, we hope that changing the conductors throughout the concert shifts the audience's focus, and helps them pay greater attention to the people who actually make the sound - the players, and allows them to formulate their own response to the music, without the conductor-as-conduit framing the concert experience for them.
Rather than being confronted with a single orchestra making the same movements, dressed in the same clothes, directed by a single artistic will, we hope that each person (or small animal) in the audience sees 40 individuals, each having their own experience of the same thing - the music. In this way, the audience and the orchestra are one, and the leadership is actually in the middle, not at the top.