COVID-19 wrecked the Canberra Symphony Orchestra’s past two seasons and it may have been tempting for the woman with the baton to play safe for the organisation’s return to Canberra stages.
But Chief Conductor and Artist Director Jessica Cottis, currently performing in Europe, wanted to do more than just slip into familiar clothes.
That can be seen in the 2022 season title, Visionaries, and the mix of musical trailblazers she has selected to celebrate what everyone hopes will be a transition to a post-COVID world.
“I wanted to create a season full of possibility, to explore and celebrate the regeneration of art with some of the greatest musical minds,” Cottis said.
“I’ve seen at least one organisation gently criticised for safe programming in the wake of COVID disruption – we need music and imagination more than ever.”
She has programmed works stretching from the Baroque to the present day, with major works by Wagner, Beethoven, Rameau, Sibelius, and Stravinsky, alongside, importantly, 20 works by Australian composers.
“These are composers who influenced the nature of their own age and beyond, exploring themes of redemption, revolution, connection, power, identity and the imagination,” Cottis said.
“It’s music that can really resonate with everyone.”
But she has also included Indigenous hip-hop artist Rhyan Clapham aka Dobby in the three-concert Australian Series as a CSO commission and world premiere.
It won’t be the first time he has worked with the CSO but it shows how Cottis is keen to connect the threads of past and contemporary music.
“Rhyan Clapham was commissioned for the Australian Series in 2019, so I’m really looking forward to developing the artistic relationship with him,” she said.
“He has such a unique voice as a composer. His music is rhythmic, evocative and powerful – a voice that must be heard widely.”
Cottis will conduct the CSO Chamber Ensemble at the opening concert at the National Museum of Australia on 7 April.
Calling programming Australian works an “absolute imperative,” she is interested to find new ways to interact with an art form that is both historical and living, and therefore has a deep social relevance.
Titled Stargazers, Collective Memory and Hearing the Land, the concerts include works by Deborah Cheetham, Connor D’Netto, Yitzhak Yedid, Brenda Gifford and Nardi Simpson.
“Usually this series would feature a small chamber ensemble, but we’ve broadened our scope and I’m looking forward to conducting the opening program, including two new works, CSO commissions, by Christopher Sainsbury and Jakub Jankowski,” Cottis said.
The Australian Series has been a CSO success story, commissioning new works and fostering home-grown music and musicians.
Cottis said it has had a great response from audiences and is growing in breadth, scope and recognition.
“The CSO has been doing a great job of building relationships with Australian composers – even through the pandemic, with our Australian Miniseries,” she said.
“That each concert in the Australian Series will include one or two newly commissioned works shows the commitment we have to new music in Australia.”
There will also be a Llewellyn Hall mainstage commission from Canberra export Leah Curtis.
Cottis will conduct two flagship Llewellyn Series concerts – including the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in the first outing and Stravinsky’s Petrushka.
The opening concert is an example of Cottis’s approach to programming in which she sees each as an opportunity to create a world within a performance, or across a season.
It opens with Wagner, followed by Bernard Herrmann’s film suite from Hitchock’s pyscho-thriller Vertigo.
“It is an unlikely pairing, yet — in my mind at least — it is also completely organic and logical,” she said.
“Wagner’s harmonic innovations had such an extraordinary impact and we hear traces of these almost one hundred years later in Herrmann’s score. Both works are darkly psychological, quasi-spiritual and deeply suspenseful.”
Principal Guest Conductor Simon Hewett will conduct Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, as well as two special performances of Handel’s Messiah in July, featuring Chloe Lankshear, Tobias Cole, Andrew Goodwin and Adrian Tamburini.
Cottis is unfazed about programming it in the middle of the year.
“I think there is little reason to bind a piece just to Christmas or Easter. It’s such an all-time favourite for audiences and, really, the music resonates at any time of year,” she said.
“I think it will be a perfect foil to the depths of a Canberra winter.”
Flautist Emma Sholl will feature as Artist in Focus, performing CPE Bach’s virtuosic flute concerto under the baton of guest conductor Benjamin Bayl, and joining the CSO Chamber Ensemble for a program of Beethoven, Debussy and Saint-Saëns.
Other guest artists will include violinists Courtenay Cleary and Markiyan Melnychenko, and pianist Kristian Chong.
From the Llewellyn Hall mainstage to intimate chamber experiences, the season will explore themes of loss, redemption, revolution, connection, power, identity and imagination.
It will end with Cottis conducting the Summer Prom on 3 December at Government House.
“The CSO Summer Prom is always a beautiful event – an open-air concert for all ages on the lawns of Government House, with the sun setting over the Brindabellas and lots of wonderful music,” she said.
“I’m delighted I will be in Canberra for this annual community highlight.”
CSO Chief Executive Rachel Thomas said she hoped the season launch would lift spirits in the wake of disappointing cancellations, as the ACT navigates the transition out of its second COVID-19 lockdown.
“Sell-out concerts in 2021 are a testament to the value our community places on live performance,” Ms Thomas said.
“I want to thank our audiences for their ongoing dedication and support.”
To view the full season program visit the CSO website.