Flying high and seeing far with conductor Jessica Cottis

Jessica Cottis. Photo: Gerard Collett

If Donald Trump ever bans flights from the U.K. to the U.S., Jessica Cottis could consider getting there on her own. She’s training to fly R44 helicopters and while it would involve many stops, such a flight is possible. But improbable.

All kidding aside, sadly she won’t now be able to travel to Ottawa to conduct the NAC Orchestra in a concert of music written by Dutch composers. Still, Cottis has an impressive international career and is someone Ottawa fans of classical music should know about.

When this interview happened she was certainly watching with concern as concerts across Europe are postponed and cancelled.

“I just conducted two concerts at the Barbican today, but a lot people are worried after seeing Italy go into lockdown.

“Musicians are worried about the wonderful concerts we have lined up and we are worried about people’s health as well.”

No matter what happens in the next hours and days, Cottis will remain an in-demand conductor around the world … from her home nation of Australia to Canada. She’s also a real renaissance person with interests in many areas including flying.

“I just love flying. I love being up in the air. I have always had a fascination with things that fly. I have a strong interest in butterflies for example. If I’m not conducting I’m somewhere trying to spot ones I haven’t seen yet.

“There is something extraordinary about lifting ourselves out of our situation and being able to see a big picture.”

Her fascination with butterflies began when she was a child. She was outside in the bright Australian sun when she found a dead Tiger butterfly on the ground.

“For me this has been a lifelong interest. It’s sometimes because of those things that happen to us when we are very young that we have Proustian links to them throughout our lives.”

She picked up the butterfly and and the colour of the scales on its wings transferred to her fingers.

“It was like I had liquid gold on my fingers.”

Her interests expanded to the natural world generally. She likes being out on the land when ever possible.

“The world is a hugely intense place. I find it very noisy.” That’s an issue for someone who is interested in “really” listening.

“I like having that sort of place where I can be very attuned to everything around us …  colour, texture and sound.” She was understandably heartbroken by the wildfires in Australia.

“They were heartbreaking and astonishing.”

If things had gone according to plan, Cottis would be a professional organist.

“That was my dream but I developed a severe case of carpal tunnel syndrome. I have a couple of siblings who get it as well.”

It became so severe she couldn’t reliably play any more. “I had an incident in a recital playing a big piece by Liszt my left hand gave out. It was terrifying. I could improvise my way out of the situation and I don’t think many people noticed, but we dedicate our lives to bringing this incredible music to life again and if we lose the ability to do that reliably,  it’s hard to come to terms with.

Her life was upside down. Therapies and surgeries didn’t work.

“I had hard decision but it was clear it wouldn’t get better.”

She moved on, first trying the law. “It was eyeopening and fascinating, but it felt like I wasn’t being myself.”

So se turned to conducting, not as big a leap as you might expect, she said.

“When you playing the organ, you have an orchestra in front of you. You might have four or five keyboards making different combinations of sounds.”

The stars aligned and she got into a post graduate conducting course at the Royal Academy of Music in London where she worked with Sir Colin Davis.

She says that at first she didn’t know what she was doing conducting-wise but “I knew what I wanted to do with the music.” That came from her broad experience on the organ.

Organists learn how to read full orchestral scores. They get tested reading four clefs at same time and “transposing up a fourth.”

For her “when it came to conducting it was more the physicality of trying to show music with my arms. I didn’t have that formal training.” She certainly does now.

Cottis uses both the baton and her hands.

When she’s in front of an orchestra the baton offers clarity for the 90 musicians in front of her.

“There is also a certain swoop of sound in the strings that can be created through the extension of the arm holding a baton.”

But she is happy to use her hands in more intimate settings such as classical and contemporary repertoire.

“There is a kind of directness in approach and clarity and an unfettered, uncluttered way of getting musical ideas across. The hands can be incredibly expressive.”

These days Cottis guest conducts with great orchestras such as the London Symphony and the Royal Philharmonic in London. She does have a job on the horizon but won’t say with whom just yet.

She believes that female conductors are more and more getting important positions, but that it is still a male-dominated world. Even so she is thriving.

“I have a fantastic career. I work with top orchestras certainly in the UK and Europe on the main stage and in major concerts. I’m happy and full of joy for work I have.

“I have been offered a couple of music director positions which I didn’t feel were good fits so I turned them down. The position requires a commitment to an orchestra for a number of years.

“It’s a marriage of sorts and I want a happy marriage where everyone can grow with the possibility of visionary thought and interesting programs. These are absolute musts for me.”

As for when she conducts, she says she doesn’t feel her gender makes any difference.

“I haven’t experienced any sexism personally that I’m aware of. However if we look at the statistics we are nowhere near equal footing yet. This is going to take time.

“When I went to the Royal Academy (she graduated in 2009) I was the first female on the course for a decade. Now there are more women in the course. This is happening across world in music schools and you see it in assistant conducting positions everywhere.”

She believes there is no point in putting people in positions just to fill a quota if the candidates aren’t ready.

“We have to support people along each step of the journey. I feel this as a real responsibility not just for women but all minorities and all backgrounds. We need to really level playing field and what we see at the podium actually reflects what we see in society.”

As for harassment she says “thankfully the world is changing. I hope for a music world where there is nothing but respect … that we are respectful of the music and the geniuses who write it and respect for each other that doesn’t matter what level they or who they are.

“When we play in ensembles, we have to listen and work together. This happens in really good orchestras. This is the kind of thing we need in society.”

Cottis has been helped along the way herself, by Davis first and then by Vladimir Ashkenazy, when he was chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. She joined him as an assistant conductor after graduating in 2009.

“Music emanates from him at all times. He is also a very generous and kind man. He and wife Dody were generous with their time with me.

“He’d take me through scores and we would discuss music a lot. It was a wonderful education for me. I was working with one of the great musicians of our time.” She said she would conduct about 30 concerts a year in Sydney and now she goes back once a year to do a subscription series.

She says her understanding of the Finnish composer Sibelius was developed by Davis and Ashkenazy. “We did so much Sibelius.” Now she frequently conducts that music in Scandinavia.

In addition to her musical career, Cottis has become a regular on the BBC talking up the value of classical music. She believes it’s important.

“I think as humans we are hungry to experience things that help us connect to our emotions in a meaningful way. This includes music of all sorts, not just classical. Music really does bypass our intellect and speak directly to the heart.

“For me, this is what classical music can do. We can be completely carried away on a wave by 80 musicians playing a Brahms Symphony. What a legacy we have.

“The human race has created these extraordinary sound worlds capable of lifting us out of our quotidian lives. It’s the feeling you get when you climb a mountain and feel so happy to be alive.”

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.