2 September 2022

Cottis produces kaleidoscopic 2023 season for Canberra Symphony

| Ian Bushnell
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Jessica Cottis

CSO Chief Conductor and Artistic Director Jessica Cottis: music literally colours her life. Photo: Kaupo Kikkas.

Jessica Cottis hears a little differently to most.

As an elite musician you would expect that, but like the composers Rimsky-Korsakov and Sibelius, whose works feature in the Canberra Symphony Orchestra’s just announced 2023 program, she experiences music as colour.

The effect for the synesthetic CSO’s Chief Conductor and Artistic Director is that she sees in her mind’s eye colours relating to particular chords, and anything remotely out of tune will produce a fuzziness or lack of clarity in what she senses.

“Everything I program is somehow connected to this, often unconsciously,” says London-based Cottis, who for 2023 focused on composers with a close connection and a special affinity with colour.

She promises a colour-coded season, entitled Chroma, that spans the centuries, includes lesser known works and gives Australian composers a due seat at the table.

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Her inspiration was a collection of poetic essays on the concept of colour, also entitled Chroma, by the ground-breaking British filmmaker Derek Jarman.

“You’ll see in our 2023 season that each program is inspired by an idea of visual colour, whether more abstract (‘Play of Light’) or inherently linked to landscape (‘Red Desert Sand’), and – like Jarman – I’ve kaleidoscopically curated a program which spans the ancient to the modern, both repertoire well-loved and new,” she says.

Never one to play safe, Cottis says it’s going to be eclectic, adventurous and thrilling.

Favourite classical works will sit alongside new Australian repertoire, and the less familiar works of much-loved names, such as Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1 and Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus.

But if you can’t experience it all, these are Cottis’s top three:

  • Living Green Llewellyn Series concert, drawn from the primeval forest and featuring Sibelius’s exhilarating one-movement 7th Symphony, Strauss’s Four Last Songs, with rising star soprano Eleanor Lyons, Dvorak’s glorious In Nature’s Realm and a new CSO commission from Australian Louisa Trewartha.
  • Simon James Phillipps’ 50-minute, immersive surround-sound work Perto Do Ar for the CSO brass situated around the Atrium of the National Museum of Australia as part of the Australian Series – “a once-in-a-lifetime experience”.
  • Night Visions Chamber Classics concert featuring Borodin’s ravishing 2nd String Quartet and Sally Greenaway’s The Sky is Also Yours, written for four double basses, a digital work from lockdown that Cottis was keen to have performed live.

The season will feature 20 works by Australian composers, including five important new CSO commissions.

The Australian Series will open with William Barton’s Square Circles Beneath the Red Desert Sand, written about the spirits of his country, Kalkadunga country in Mount Isa.

Coupled with Sculthorpe’s striking String Quartet No. 7, a response to a painting by Russell Drysdale that depicts a desert expanse fiercely lit by the sun, this program also includes an electroacoustic work for electrified steel by eminent sound artist Ros Bandt, and a CSO commission from Noongar violist and scholar Aaron Wyatt written, like Barton’s work, for string quartet, percussion and didjeridu.

Jessica Cottis with her CSO musicians. She is promising a thrilling season. Photo: CSO.

Other highlights in the Australian Series include Lisa Illean’s delicately nuanced Lightsense No. 1 that explores the interplay of light and shadow, and another CSO commission, an evocative and energetic musical creation from Yuwaalaraay storyteller Nardi Simpson, inspired by the interaction of light.

Cottis says the Australian Series is having a huge impact within Australia, and also as a model abroad.

“How many orchestras have a program series dedicated solely to new Australian composers?” she says.

“This year, I’ve balanced the very new voices with more established. There’s a huge multiplicity of voices and musical styles.”

Cottis singles out the CSO’s first Composer-in-Connection Connor D’Netto, who is taking the world by storm and whose works will feature across the season.

“D’Netto’s compositions are fascinating, and often balance driving rhythmic elements with heartfelt lyrical expression drawn from his extensive performance experience as a classically trained singer,” she says.

“It will be hugely interesting for our musicians to work in depth with a composer across a season.”

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On the Llewellyn Hall mainstage, there will be two major commissions from Miriama Young for Electric Blue and and Louisa Trewartha for Living Green, both of which Cottis will conduct.

“I first encountered their music early in 2021. We stayed in touch, and I’m excited they’ve both agreed to write for our 2023 Llewellyn Hall concerts,” she says.

Cottis draws on a diverse number of influences and finds programming a season very satisfying.

“It might be a philosophical text, or hearing subtle changes in birdsong as the sun rises,” she says.

“Once a framework is established, there’s the scope to explore more intuitively. I think there is also always a dialogue to be had with history. It’s one of the most rewarding aspects of my work.”

Known for her energy on the podium, Cottis has found inspiration this year from great conductors George Szell and Sir John Barbirolli who wrought world-class performances from their orchestras.

It provides insight into her vision for the CSO when she talks about how Barbirolli “coaxed a massive sound from his orchestra, as though on fire” and “as though the conductor and orchestra had become the same entity”.

“In terms of building an orchestra, this is absolutely the right way,” Cottis says.

The CSO’s musicians and audiences should be in for the ride of their lives.

To view the entire season program visit the CSO website.

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