“MUSIC is food for the soul, it’s bigger than us,” chief conductor and artistic director of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra Jessica Cottis says when I catch up with her by WhatsApp.
Cottis is, at the time, halfway through conducting a season of Verdi’s “Macbeth” for Norrlandsoperan, Sweden, playing to a full, unmasked audience and she’s rejoicing in the freedoms.
Cottis is blessed with good luck. Earlier in the year when leaving Australia, where she’d been conducting with the CSO from March to May, the British rules changed so that she didn’t need to quarantine, because Australia was then considered a “green [relatively safe] country.”
Then when she arrived in Sweden in August when British nationals were considered a danger, she was deemed “important enough” to be allowed in.
“They really value the arts here, it’s a very important part of society,” she says.
Cottis, the organ graduate from the ANU School of Music who later took the postgraduate conducting course at the Royal Academy of Music, now calls London home.
She’s lived there for a while after several years conducting in Glasgow and has since enjoyed a massive career, rushing around the globe conducting, running courses for female conductors and becoming a frequent contributor to BBC Radio as a music commenter.
Ensconced in Sweden, where she is visited as often as possible by her partner, she’s missing her flat in London, but only a little bit.
“One of the tough aspects to being a conductor is that there’s so much travel and a lot of time away from home, but I love interacting with different landscapes, I like the balance,” she says.
Not only balance, but control and commitment, which is why, after initially having been appointed as “artist adviser” to the CSO, she was soon renamed chief conductor and artistic director.
“I don’t like to do anything by halves; if I take something on, I want to be fully engaged,” Cottis says.
“It takes a great deal of commitment, time and focus creating a vision that works for an organisation and for the city that the organisation fits within.”
Canberra, her old home town, is the only place where she’s fulfilling such a directorial role and happily, she’s still got family here, including all four of her siblings.
“I felt it’s such a wonderful match,” she says. “It’s truly wonderful working with a brilliant orchestra and brilliant people.
“I feel very strongly that we are the symphony orchestra of the nation’s capital and that must mean something beyond providing musical excellence for Canberra‘s classical music lovers.
“It’s very important to me that we create our own history… so much of classical music consists of canonical museum pieces, but something still needs to be created for this time.”
That explains the exceptional number of new commissions – including five world premieres – seen across the Llewellyn and Australian Series, which she will now curate, replacing Deborah Cheetham, whom she admires as “a pretty profound human being”.
There are composer-stars such as Leah Curtis, the Canberran doing “amazing” things in Los Angeles, from whom a new work has been commissioned, and there’s a mysterious unnamed commission from the National Museum of Australia.
The 2022 season includes an astonishing 20 Australian works, some old but mostly new, with works by Canberra composers Christopher Sainsbury, Brenda Gifford, Natalie Williams and Michael Sollis, new works from indigenous rapper Rhyan Clapham (Dobby), storyteller Nardi Simpson, violinist Eric Avery and Cheetham in composer mode, the latter a “must” in Cottis’ view.
But with all this innovation, what about the core audience of the CSO, the music lovers who flock to hear the classics?
Cottis is sympathetic to their needs, saying: “People come to be lifted out of their daily lives, so we provide the classic music that we just love.” Names such as Beethoven, Debussy, Schubert, Liszt and Bach are in both Llewellyn and the chamber series and they are the “Visionaries” who give the title to the entire 2022 season.
Thinking that in the cold winter months it might be good to have a big and “wonderfully uplifting” classic for the whole family, Cotter has scheduled a sort of Christmas-in-July performance of Handel’s “Messiah”, conducted by Simon Hewett.
There’s also room for Cottis’ personal favourite, Sibelius, to her “one of the greatest of all composers… his music is wild, hypnotic electricity, bringing light”.
Cottis is no random programmer and says: “When I program an event, it is incredibly well thought out, but it all starts from the kernel of an idea, sometimes very tiny.”
An example is the opening program, “Redemption”, which will feature works by Wagner, Australian composer Margaret Sutherland, film composer Bernard Herrmann and Felix Mendelssohn, disparate but all with fascinating interconnections.
That grew out of Cottis’ simple vision that the “Liebestod” (Love-Death) motif from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” would be a fantastic thing for the CSO to play.
If Cottis has her way, Canberra’s music lovers will be transported by brilliant music, which will provide release, both psychological and spiritual.
The full 2022 program for the Canberra Symphony Orchestra can be found at cso.org.au
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