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Jessica Cottis: colour, conducting and Canberra roots

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Jessica Cottis joins the Canberra Symphony Orchestra as Artistic Advisor from 2021.

A place of many formative musical experiences, Canberra holds special significance for Jessica Cottis.

The sought-after conductor and communicator gives us an insight into her vision for its orchestra and her love for her hometown.

You studied organ at the ANU School of Music, but a subsequent injury brought your performance career to a halt. Describe that experience and the influence it had on your creative journey.

From the ANU School of Music, I continued my studies in Paris. There, and in London, I had a fantastic career for a number of years. In 2005, I started losing sensation in some of my fingers—carpal tunnel syndrome was diagnosed. I kept playing for as long as I could, but the fingers in my left hand stopped working. It was a very dark time.

There was, however, a silver lining: if I’d not been injured, I’ve never have taken up conducting. I spent three years at the Royal Academy of Music in London, learning my technique from the great Sir Colin Davis. On the podium, I once again found my ‘musical voice’.

Perhaps this shift from organist to conductor was inevitable. I’m a synaesthete—I experience sound as colour—and the intoxicating soundscape of the organ is not unlike being right in the middle of your own enormous orchestra.

What are you looking forward to about working with the Canberra Symphony Orchestra as Artistic Advisor?

Canberra is a dynamic capital. The creative energy is almost palpable, and the Canberra Symphony Orchestra (CSO) is an integral part of this. I’ve been really taken by the spirit and heart of the musicians and staff. This is an orchestra going places, with a wealth of musical talent, energy and vision for the future.

Further, whenever I come here, I feel we make music not just as colleagues, but as friends. I’m looking forward to all the exciting music-making and sharing this with our Canberra audiences. I hope any HerCanberra readers who’ve never heard the CSO in concert will look to join us.

Describe your vision in three words

Thrilling, thought-provoking, transformative.

My aim is to enable everyone to experience something greater than themselves, through music.

How has Canberra changed since your student days?

Canberra has always had a distinct cultural identity. It’s striking to see how the creative and performing arts have really flourished since my student days. And there are now so many great wineries and great coffee!

Since the early 1900s, Canberra’s always been our bush capital, yet it manages to be effortlessly urbane.

What would your ideal Canberra weekend entail?

A long walk around Lake Burley Griffin at sunrise. I never fail to be delighted by all the native birds and wildlife in abundance.

Then, coffee at Typica, a visit to the Asian art collection at the National Gallery and an afternoon catching up with family. Ideally, a CSO concert in the evening!

Somehow you find time to fly helicopters and collect butterflies. Tell us about that!

Butterflies have been a lifelong interest—my fascination began as a child. I found a dead Spotted Jezebel butterfly on the ground, picked it up, and the brightly coloured scales of its wings transferred to my fingers. I thought it was magic.

Sometimes those special moments from when we are very young create Proustian links throughout our lives: each time I see a butterfly as an adult, I experience the same excitement as the five-year-old me. I don’t collect, but certainly spend much of my free time observing and studying wherever I am in the world.

My interests expand to the natural world generally, but I’ve always had a special fascination with things that fly. Regarding helicopters, it’s exhilarating, humbling and life-affirming being above the earth.

As Leonardo da Vinci wrote: “once you’ve tasted flight, you will walk this earth with your eyes cast upwards”. I think there’s something extraordinary about lifting ourselves out of our situation and being able to see a big picture.

Photography: Kaupo Kikkas

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