Arts / Jessica comes home on a high note

Conductor Jessica Cottis… excited about coming to Canberra and conducting the CSO in Llewellyn Hall for the first time. Photo by Colin Hattersley

FLYING high is all in a day’s work for conductor Jessica Cottis, due to jet into her former hometown next week to conduct the Canberra Symphony Orchestra.

Describing herself as “a bit of a nomad”, she flies around the world conducting in many countries. Although for some years she was based in Glasgow where she was the principal conductor of the Glasgow New Music Expedition.

She has now moved to London because that’s where the work is.

Last year she made her conducting debut at the Royal Albert Hall for the 2016 BBC Proms and she’s a regular with London Philharmonic Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, l’Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo, to say nothing of orchestras in Australia and NZ. She’s also a regular on BBC radio programs.

Unusually for a conductor, she was originally trained as an organist, and indeed took out firsts from the ANU in organ, piano and musicology before continuing her studies as an organist with Marie-Claire Alain in Paris. An injury to her wrist put a stop to that so, after doing the conducting course at the Royal Academy of Music, she embarked on a formidable career.

“As a teenager I played trumpet, but when you’re playing the organ, you effectively have an entire orchestra,” she says.

“I studied in Paris and some of the organs there are so enormous, it’s like having four orchestras in front of you… it trains the ear, it gives you practice in improvisation and also the kind of intellectual capacity to play what is essentially an historic instrument.”

She spoke to “CityNews” by phone from Turkey where she was conducting the Istanbul State Symphony Orchestra in what she called “a really nice program” that includes Mozart’s “Magic Flute” overture, his “Sinfonia Concertante for Four Winds” and a rarely performed Richard Strauss work.

In August, 2015, she conducted the “Gallipoli Symphony” in Istanbul, the brainchild of Canberra music director Chris Latham.

“The orchestra and I got on really well, so they asked me back,” she says.

Cottis describes conducting “The Gallipoli Symphony” as: “Hugely significant to me, it was something that really made me think that one of the reasons I’m a musician is just how powerful music can be – this made us look back to the past with fresh eyes and stand alongside people we had previously been at war with.”

Although it was Latham who curated the symphony, it was the Queensland Symphony Orchestra that nominated Cottis for the conducting job, she says.

Cottis is strongly opposed to the idea of the “god-conductor”, noting that the very word “conductor” relates to the word “conduit”, a carrier.

“It is not acceptable for any leader to be dominant,” she says.

“As leaders, we have the responsibility for people who are sharing our vision, music is a shared experience. I always have a strong musical vision and a strong intellectual vision, but it still needs to be collective, there’s a lot of give-and-take.”

Cottis is excited about coming to Canberra and conducting the CSO in Llewellyn Hall for the first time in a concert also featuring the talents of Canberra-raised pianist Daniel de Borah playing Shostakovich’s “Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor.”

All of her four siblings live here – and what’s the chance of that? Canberra was always the home her family came back to in between Defence postings and now, as a self-described nomad, it’s even more so for her.

The CSO has given her the chance to conduct works close to her heart, including Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, “The Pastoral”, of which she says: “I find it so exciting, every time I do it, it feels like walking into a new river, a new forest, a new thunderstorm”.

“I wanted to pair it with another piece which would complement it in its core vision of nature in music.”

“Cantus Arcticus” (Concerto for Birds and Orchestra) by Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, was her choice.

“It’s essentially a concert for birds and orchestra from the early 1970s, and Rautavaara died last year, so it’s a lovely remembrance… he taped birds from the Arctic Circle and the orchestra kind of communicates with birds – it doesn’t require any knowledge of music to enjoy it,” she says.

As a girl, Cottis remembers that every time her family would come back to Canberra after postings, they’d go to hear the Canberra Symphony Orchestra.

“This is the kind of relationship that makes my work even more special… it’s great to come back to one’s roots.”

Canberra Symphony Orchestra, Llewellyn Hall, March 29-30. Bookings to cso.org.au

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