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2016 London Beethoven Marathon

In Encore’s latest guest blog, Holly Mathieson, assistant conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, discusses a recent musical marathon fundraiser.alt

The 2016 Beethoven Marathon was born during an English breakfast with fellow London music mavericks Sam Burstin and Adrián Varela. We’d met five years earlier at the Philharmonia Orchestra – they played in the string section and I was the orchestra librarian, photocopying at all hours of the night, taping parts back together in various international departure lounges, and learning a great deal about conducting from that incredible band.

The lads and I had kept in touch after I left the Phil to freelance, supporting each other in our endeavours as baby conductors, and we were keen to continue this friendship onto the concert platform. What Sam and Adrian proposed that morning over breakfast was musically and ethically irresistible.

The game was this: all nine Beethoven Symphonies in one day to raise money for a major charity. Each symphony would have 15 minutes’ rehearsal before the whistle was blown, at which point the entire symphony would be played. After a short tea break, we’d play the next symphony with the same rules. Utter folly.

Dividing the repertoire was a joyous expression of generosity. As I work in the opera world, I took on the choral 9th symphony. The boys then chose one favourite symphony each, and we divvied up the remainders, ensuring that everyone around the table would be satisfied with their symphonic starter, main, and dessert.


From left to right: Ed Choo, Sam Burstin, Imogen Burman, Stephen Kennedy, Vanessa Heine, Joanne Roughton-Arnold, Holly Mathieson, Adrian Varela
Finally, we needed to choose a charity to receive any funds raised. We looked up auspicious events in history for the performance date and, having discovered nothing more exciting than the anniversary of the German Beer Purity Law, we decided to go with our consciences.

Not long before our bacon and egg meeting, we’d all heard the dreadful news of October 3rd, 2015, that the Médecins Sans Frontières [Doctors without Borders] trauma centre in Kunduz had been bombed by Western coalition forces, in a breach of international humanitarian law. At least 42 died and countless patients in the area lost a vital medical resource.

We agreed that were we to take the text of the 9th Symphony (“All men shall become brothers”) seriously, there could be no more fitting charity to support than one which protects those whose lives are torn apart by global conflict. The moment we made that decision, the enormity of what we were undertaking registered. This was no longer three mates having a lark; this was an artistic act of political protest, musical advocacy of the staff of MSF and all whom they serve.

I had countless sleepless nights, anticipating a meagre orchestra of 4 (the three conductors and my friend Imogen, who had promised to play cello for all 9 symphonies). But what unfolded that day was truly humbling – a constant stream of players from all over southeast England, from ageing community players to some of London’s top professional players and conservatoire students.


Several musicians arrived shyly in the morning, with the warning that they’d be going home after number 2 – almost all of them were still with us for the final notes of number 9. If we were missing a wind or brass instrument, the missing notes were sung lustily by those without a reed in their mouth, or transcribed at sight by an idle trombonist or one of the myriad flautists.

Our four exceptional soloists, Joanne Roughton-Arnold, Vanessa Heine, Ed Choo and Steve Kennedy (who also played viola for the entire day, including the first 3 movements of the 9th ) graciously accepted the offer of “no pay, no rehearsal and possibly no audience, but we’ll buy you a pint and give you a hug afterwards”. There were tears, embraces, copious servings of gin, and one fainter at the pub afterwards. But, after conceding it was the craziest, most exhausting musical adventure of our lives to date, we agreed we’d better start planning for 2017… Watch this space!

The current amount raised is over £2300, and we are currently in the process of editing a short film of the day, to raise even more. If you know someone you think might like to donate, please do send them the JustGiving link on our behalf:


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James McAulay

Encore Co-Founder & CEO. Cellist, pianist, singer and aspiring guitarist.

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