Saturday 23 February 2019

The idea of bringing to life something which has never been alive before: my interview with conductor Jessica Cottis

Jessica Cottis
Jessica Cottis
Gavin Higgins' new opera The Monstrous Child opened at the Royal Opera House's Linbury Studio on Thursday (21 February 2019, in repertory until 3 March 2019) with Jessica Cottis conducting, and in fact Jessica has been involved with the opera since the first workshops at Covent Garden [see my interview with Gavin Higgins]. I met up with Jessica recently to talk about the new opera and new music in general, and topics as diverse as how everyone should have access to music, how she finds programming concerts fun, the importance of the CBeebies Prom and her passion for flying helicopters.

When I met Jessica she had come straight from rehearsals of The Monstrous Child, and was carrying a large bag containing a thick A4 vocal score, and a very substantial A3 full score, beautifully laid out and with all of Jessica's own notes. This led us to start with a discussion about the complexity of musical notes and conveying the necessary information, that a conductor needs to work beyond the notes themselves. For any production of a new opera, the notes in the composer's head need to be translated so that they can be read by other people. And for the process of creation to work smoothly, this translation needs to happen as quickly as possible.

Jessica sees it as a language issue, a conductor needs to learn what it is the composer is trying to achieve, what the sounds which correspond to the musical notations are intended to be. With a composer whose work she knows, Jessica finds it easier to understand what the composer intends with a new score.  Jessica recently did a new piece by Laura Bowler, Antarctica, with the Manchester Camerata. Jessica had worked with Laura on one of her other scores a year ago and that meant that, despite the passage of time, the process of understanding Laura's musical language was much faster this time around.

The freshly printed score sitting on her desk, giving the feeling that anything is possible

With Gavin Higgins' The Monstrous Child, Jessica was involved in the very first workshops on the piece, alongside Kasper Holton at the Royal Opera House. Though she had heard Gavin's music before, this was the first score of his that she worked on and this early introduction to the composer's language was very helpful. She felt very privileged to be involved in what was a very collaborative creation process, and this far into the rehearsal process Jessica knows what Gavin wants. Whilst he communicates very clearly in the score, the inevitable limitations of musical notation mean that this personal interaction with the composer is very important as Jessica learns his language.

Jessica clearly loves working with contemporary music, so many aspects excite her. The idea of bringing to life something which has never been alive before, so that everything is new and nothing is certain. She enjoys the process of exploration, you don't know the outcome but want to share the new pieces with an audience.

Jessica is naturally curious about things, and new music excites this part of her brain. With that curiosity come a thrill which is addictive, in a good way. She loves the freshly printed score sitting on her desk, giving the feeling that anything is possible.

When it comes the canonic repertoire, Jessica feels that these different aspects of her work as a conductor feed into each other. So, when she opens up a Janacek score, she is not able to ask the composer about his dynamic, why that chord is place there, but having worked with new music she approaches the canonic repertoire in the same way. An approach which she feels does not take the work for granted and can be very freeing. She goes back to the basics of the notation, the performance history and historical aspects of the piece to bring a fresh approach.

Whilst not working with period instrument ensembles (this is not where her work has taken her), historically informed performance practice interests her, and she comments that her original training as an organist makes this inevitable. It is impossible for an organist not to be involved in performance practice, how a piece was played different for every period, style and national school, not to mention the variation in instruments themselves, so that in organ playing HIP is everywhere.

And she is interested in how this colours and influences us today. How players articulate and breathe, how chords are balanced is influenced by her knowledge of how the pieces were originally played, and of course every piece of music was new once and brought the thrill of discovery to its original players. Whilst we know a lot about HIP, the fact that we can never know the exact details of how music was performed is something that Jessica finds tantalising. Questions such as how the music sounded, and why it sounded that way, feed into questions of how we communicated that today in the most charismatic way possible.

Everyone in society needs access to music

SWAP'ra gala at Opera Holland Park (Photo Robert Workman)
SWAP'ra gala at Opera Holland Park in 2018, for which Jessica Cottis was music director (Photo Robert Workman)
Jessica was the musical director for SWAP'ra's gala at Opera Holland Park in 2018 [see my article], and has run courses for women conductors for the Royal Philharmonic Society. This sort of advocacy work is built on Jessica's feeling that everyone in society needs access to music. And that this must start at the youngest possible ages, and that governments need to be behind this.

For Jessica, music is one of the purest forms of communication that we have, and it is something that all can participate in equally, and this forms the rationale behind her advocacy work. She is a conductor who happens to be female, her gender does not alter the way she works but she feels everyone should have the same access.

SWAP'ra is working towards getting changes to the way the classical music industry operates so that working patterns are more sympathetic to family life. Having working schedules fixed far enough in advance not only benefits people who need to arrange child-care but means that all concerned can maintain a better balance between work and home life. When she was in her teens, Jessica saw Simone Young conducting and though wow, the really incredible colours she drew from the orchestra, what a rare, magical creature she must be. And this moment got Jessica thinking.

There has been an access issue for women in classical music, when Jessica was growing up in Australia, she did not realise that conductors could be women, she did not see women being conductors at a high level.  But Jessica feels that this will change, and nowadays there is much affirmative action. She feels we need to ask the question why we behave like this, are these structures useful, and what are we going to do about it. And it gets to the point where she can't not do anything!

It is important that children have access to a means to express themselves
through an artistic discipline

Jessica Cottis conducting the BBC Concert Orchestra at the CBeebies Prom in 2016 (Photo BBC)
Jessica Cottis conducting the BBC Concert Orchestra at the CBeebies Prom in 2016 (Photo BBC)
A few years ago Jessica conducted the CBeebies Prom [available on BBC iPlayer] and received plenty of letters from three and four year old children (written by their parents) saying how much they had loved the music, telling her what their favourite pieces were and how she had brought the music alive. One young girl wrote 'When I'm older I would like to boss the music men around'! The programme is still repeated on the CBeebies channel, so Jessica still gets letters and still gets spotted on the tube.

Many schools do not have music, so the programme allowed access to children who were not usually involved in or exposed to classical music, it was on TV and the music played was significant, Richard Strauss, Peter Sculthorpe, Lili Boulanger and Beethoven, presented in a captivating manner. Thus, showing that anything is possible.

Jessica feels that it is important that children have access to a means to express themselves through an artistic discipline, we need this in order to remain human. Of course, it doesn't have to be music, but music is the most immediate.

The colours from the orchestra and from the singers encased her,
and she could not sleep for a couple of nights

Jessica trained as an organist (at the Australian National University and with Marie-Claire Alain in Pari), but unfortunately developed Carpal Tunnel Syndrome which meant that not only was it painful but she found it difficult to move her smaller fingers and lost sensitivity. That the effects of the condition varied so it made her so unreliable was terrifying. When she stopped being an organist, she did not return to music but started studying law, but after a year she realised that part of her life was missing. She had played the piano before she could talk and needed to be involved in music.

Conducting had been in her mind for some time, she found it interesting and not so different to playing the organ as both create a range of colour with the ability to mould different sounds. Whilst in Vienna, visiting friends, she went to the Staatsoper and heard a performance of Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier and it was if a match had been struck in the dark. The colours from the orchestra and from the singers encased her, and she could not sleep for a couple of nights. This was the moment when she realised that she would have to try and do it.

She blindly applied to the Royal Academy of Music and attended a Summer school at the Accademia Chigiana in Siena. She was surprised at how well the Summer school went, she knew what she wanted but just did not have the means to convey it. And she got into the Royal Academy of Music, and immediately thought what have I done!

Her favourite era for music is the late 1800s into the early 1900s, fin de siecle, she loves the range of colour in the music of the period. But Jessica's programming is certainly not about simply playing the standard repertoire. A glance at her concerts for this year shows music by Lili Boulanger, Germaine Tailleferre, Cecile Chaminade, Jon Leifs, Sally Beamish, Kari Baek, Hollis Taylor, Moondog and Erkki-Sven Tuur, alongside more well known names from Vivaldi and Rebel, to Bizet and Ravel, to Stravinsky and Britten.

Jessica finds programming concerts fun

Jessica finds programming concerts fun, and sees it as a way to set people thinking. She wants to take core repertoire and combine it with pieces which will open our ears, she is constantly asking herself the question what is out there that we don't know. She takes an almost scientific approach, so we have this piece of knowledge (work in the canonic repertoire), and asks how can we experience more, what are the links to things we do not know. It is an open and playful way of programming, and a way of bringing the core repertoire alive. Audiences respond well to her approach, and players are also seem very interested.

Whilst she feels that it is right to repeat works in the core repertoire, she thinks that we should be asking the question why, should we be doing this. Sometimes you can make the programme feel more connected if you think outside the box, and she finds that anything can be programmed if it is done with thought.

Whilst her programming this Summer does include a significant number of women composers, she is interested in exploring all new repertoire. But she points out the Germaine Tailleferre, whose music Jessica is performing alongside that of Satie, Milhaud, Bizet and Ravel, was one of Les Six yet whilst we know the music of the men from Les Six well (Poulenc, Milhaud, Honnegger), we know Tailleferre's less well. Jessica thinks Tailleferre was a kind of genius, doing things that no-one else was doing, using unusual combinations of instruments and having a very unique approach to orchestration.

Jessica was born and brought up in Australia, and now lives in London. Her father still lives in Australia and she goes over twice per year. She was assistant to Vladimir Ashkenazy when he conducted the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and this brought a flowering of opportunities in Australia. She is going back over there shortly to do Nielsen's Inextinguishable [with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in May], and will be also performing in Melbourne. So visits to Australia combine work with family, sunshine and surfing, but Australia is a long way away and as much of Jessica's work is in Europe at the moment basing herself in Australia is not really possible.

Jessica is a dual British-Australian citizen, and this duality reflects her outlook. Whilst she has an understanding and love of the spare Australian landscape with its colours of blues, red and gold, which she describes as being deeply etched inside her, she feels culturally at hom in Europe. Both are important to her in different ways and as long as she is based in Europe she will always go back to Australia

Her musical heroes include Claudio Abbado, for his poetry, Sviatoslav Richter, for his incredibly humane yet profound music making, and Leonard Bernstein for his ability to connect and to articulate what it is about music that is so integral to us.

Jessica Cottis (Photo Gerard Collett)
Jessica Cottis (Photo Gerard Collett)
Outside of music, Jessica flies helicopters. She has been interested in them since she was a little girl, she loves flying and loves heights. She wanted to fly for many years and it recently became a reality. She thought about learning to fly a fixed wing aircraft or a helicopter and decided on the latter. She finds that there is something similar to being a conductor, the combination of structure and control with risk, the sense of being in control but the need to constantly be in the moment. You can't just stop flying, you need to be hyper aware, and it is the same as conducting an orchestra.

Gavin Higgins' The Monstrous Child, conducted by Jessica Cottis, continues at the Royal Opera House until 3 March 2019, details from the opera house website.
Full details of Jessica's engagements on her website

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Britten & Mendelssohn violin concertos from Sebastian Bohren & Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (★★) - CD review
  • The full Egmont: Beethoven's incidental music linked by extracts of Goethe's play (★★★½) - CD review
  • Sweeter than Roses: music of Purcell & his contemporaries from Anna Dennis & Sounds Baroque  - (★★) CD review
  • Sung Poetry: Kitty Whately & Simon Lepper - From the Pens of Women (★★) - concert review
  • Choral music for Advent and Christmas from Portsmouth  - CD review
  • Love songs in Temple Church: Brahms and Schumann for Valentine's Day (★★★½) - concert review
  • An obsession with Norse myths: composer Gavin Higgins introduces his new opera The Monstrous Child  - interview
  • Delightful harmonies: Carl Czerny's arrangement of Beethoven's Septet (★★) - concert review
  • Verdi in Oman: La traviata at the Royal Opera House, Muscat (★★) - opera review
  • Youth shines: Savitri Grier in Elgar's Violin Concerto - concert review
  • From play to opera: Marlowe's Edward II and Benjamin & Crimp's Lessons in Love & Violence - feature article 
  • Home

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