The conductor of this year’s Tait Memorial Trust concert on gender, education and musical styles.

It’s that time of year again in London when the beautiful concert hall at St. John’s Smith Square is taken over by the Australian Tait Memorial Trust. The venue will be filled with talented Australian musicians and singers, many having benefitted from a Tait music scholarship. November 30th will be an opportunity for audiences to hear a wonderful programme of music and spot the Australian stars of the future. If you are living in London or have friends over there, you should rush to get tickets.

Conducting and curating this concert will be the internationally acclaimed Australian-born conductor, Jessica Cottis. On a wet and stormy London morning we manage to Skype and I ask first about her involvement with the Tait Memorial Trust. “I sit on their advisory board and together we make the artistic decisions for programming concerts,” she says. “I benefitted from a Tait scholarship myself so feel really excited to be working with students and professionals who have come up through the same route.”

Cottis explains that postgraduate study in London is immensely popular with Australians. “It gives one of the best opportunities for musicians to broaden their playing experience,” she says. “The UK is good at courses that blend the academic with the practical where work experience plays a major part. Australian music education is world class, but you cannot beat the playing experience a musician gains in the UK.”

Photo by Brisbane Baroque

A quick look at her performing schedule reveals that Cottis commutes between the UK and Australia two or three times a year. “Yes, I spend many hours in the air, but conducting in Australia is so important to me,” she admits. “I have emotional and musical roots there and as my career gears up to a further level of opportunity, orchestras and venues in Australia will always be on my schedule.”

She goes on to speak frankly about her hopes for the Australian music industry. “We are a nation with so much to offer,” she says. “Even though we are mostly an urban culture we have access to wide, open spaces and an affinity with nature and this shines through in the energy of our music making. Music (and all the arts) must be treated as something living and growing. If funding is cut off it will be detrimental to the soul of the country.”

With a working foot in both camps, Cottis has some interesting observations on the different playing styles between orchestras in each country. “There is more that is similar than different, but in the UK players tend to be really fast sight readers,” she reveals, “especially when rehearsing a new piece. In Australia there is a strong ‘can do’ work ethic, which is very energising. However, the differences (or lack of them) may have something to do with the personality of the conductor and the way they manage the often complex human relationships in an orchestra.” Pressed further, she continues: “A conductor’s job is not just to learn the music; you have to be a thinker, intellectualise the music, find an emotional response then share that with the orchestra. You then form a partnership to explore further. It is only then you can produce something special for an audience.”

When I comment on the breadth of her repertoire when working in the UK (which includes many contemporary pieces) versus her more traditional programming when in Australia she is typically frank. “I will never tire of another Mozart concert in a beautiful concert hall where there is a great sense of occasion,” she admits, “but I am equally at home in a small club where the audience drink beer from plastic cups and I can experiment with more modern works. Music is a living art form and we have to give it room to breathe in all directions. Australia has some great modern composers. Perhaps audiences (and funding) need a little more time to embrace the new, but it is starting.”

Her website reveals how passionate Cottis is about working in education and with youth music. “Music is a tool to reach outside ourselves and working with young people helps keep it as a living art form,” she writes. “To paraphrase Proust ‘we need to understand art to help understand others’. We live in a noisy, distracting world and we all have to learn to express ourselves through sound to turn it into something creative. We also need to learn to listen and be silent.  Music helps with all of this.”

In an article in the Spectator this March Cottis is quoted as saying, “Talent and creativity is gender blind”. I ask, then, why the aspiring conductors attending her weekend workshop in May were all female? “It is a real problem that courses like this still have to run,” she explains. “There is a history of equality with singers, a growing equality with instrumentalists and orchestras, but there’s still a block for women conductors (and also composers). In some ways I dread this question during interviews because I do not know the answer as to why there are not more of us. All I know is that I want to help and will make time for this until the situation changes.” She speaks with real passion and you realise that if anyone is going to challenge established hierarchies it will be her.

Photo by Timothy Jeffes/Sydney Symphony Orchestra

Reflecting on the highlights and proudest moments of 2016 she rattles off a fair list: “I enjoy all my work so much, but if you push me it would first of all be the two concerts in the Albert Hall where I made my BBC Proms debut. I conducted some great music including Strauss and Beethoven. In contrast, my second highlight would be work I did with The Glasgow New Music Expedition entitled ‘Intersections’. It was a marriage between music and visual art and two of the pieces have gone on to win prizes in New Zealand and America.”

And what is she looking forward to in 2017? “Well, the ones I can mention right now are debuts in America and Scandinavia, concerts with the London Philharmonic and returning to the Sydney Symphony orchestra which I am really looking forward to. But there may be some surprises!”

There are exciting times ahead for this talented conductor, and even via the medium of Skype her enthusiasm and warm personality shine through. It is easy to see why she gains the respect of orchestra members and why she is a favoured conductor in so many places.

Click here for tickets and full details of the Tait Winter Prom concert programme