It’s official, Cottis takes the CSO reins

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Jessica Cottis. Photo: Kaupo Kikkas

AS predicted in a “CityNews” story on May 13, it’s now official that conductor Jessica Cottis will take over the reins at Canberra Symphony Orchestra from chief conductor and artistic director Nick Milton when he finishes at the end of this year after 15 years at the helm.

But in a restructuring, Cottis will become artistic advisor collaborating with conductor Simon Hewett as principal guest conductor and artistic planning manager Andy Baird, who is already on staff here.

Nicholas Milton. Photo: Sarah Walker

The Canberra-trained Cottis, whose international reputation has burgeoned since she directed “The Gallipoli Symphony” for Chris Latham at the Hagia Irene in Istanbul and the Queensland Performing Arts Centre in 2015, 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.”

“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,” she says.

Milton calls her “gifted and dynamic”. “CityNews” reviewer Ian Mclean has written of her as a “charismatic figure on the podium… clear, definitive and precise”, while Latham, referring to her Canberra background and her “Apollonian”, intellectual style of conducting asks: “What’s not to like?”

Jessica Cottis with musicians. Photo: Martin Ollman

The announcement of her appointment is bound to be popular. Cottis is respected by the musicians who have performed under her in the past two years at Llewellyn Hall and last year the CSO’s concertmaster, Kirsten Williams, told “CityNews”: “Jessica is one of the few conductors who can apply a unique level of eloquence in her ability to talk to the audience.”

“She can hold the orchestra’s attention, too, and it’s something fresh,” she said.

Unusually for a conductor, she was originally trained at the ANU as an organist, taking out first-class honours 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 what became a formidable career.

She was for some years the principal conductor of the Glasgow New Music Expedition. She’s conducted the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, a regular with London Philharmonic Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, l’Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo, the Istanbul State Symphony Orchestra and many others.

A gifted raconteur and extempore speaker, Cottis is a regular on BBC radio programs, where she has become a prominent advocate for musicians.

When last we talked, she described herself as “a bit of a nomad”, flying around the world conducting in many countries, but now she lives in London because that’s where the work is.

Her vision, she says, is to see the CSO develop even further as an orchestral innovator, telling “compelling Australian stories and taking on thought-provoking subject matter through music”, and already she is co-curating with Matthew Hindson and the CSO an online mini-series of 14 short solo works by Australian composers.

Cottis has always enjoyed coming to Canberra where her four siblings live and which was always the home her family came back to in between Defence postings and where they’d go to hear the Canberra Symphony Orchestra.

“It’s great to come back to one’s roots,” she told me.

Canberra Symphony Orchestra to showcase short solos


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