26 April 2023

Dive into the blue with the Canberra Symphony Orchestra

| Ian Bushnell
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Jessica Cottis

CSO chief conductor and artistic director Jessica Cottis: “Connecting the sound of music to the feeling we get when we look at blue in nature or blue in art’.’ Photo: Kaupo Kikkas.

Feeling blue?

The Canberra Symphony Orchestra is inviting you to embrace it this week with its third Llewellyn Hall concert for the year.

Perhaps not the melancholy, but the actual colour that infuses the works the CSO will present tonight (26 April) and tomorrow.

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Titled Electric Blue, the concert will comprise four works, all linked in some way to the colour.

For chief conductor and artistic director Jessica Cottis, back in town to take charge of the orchestra, colour and music blend.

As a synesthete, she experiences colour when she hears music, as did Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov, whose famous work Scheherazade will be the centrepiece.

Curiously, while he saw the deep blue, Cottis sees green, but as she says, we’re all different.

“For him, the key of E major, which is predominately the key we hear in Scheherazade, was a colour of deep blue of the ocean and this piece is based around the story of the 1001 Nights, so much of it is set on the sea, and we really hear that,” Cottis says.

She says Rimsky-Korsakov’s instrumentation takes the audience out on the sea to feel the rolling waves and swells.

“So I really get that from his instrumentation, but for me colour-wise, I actually get loads and loads of green and flecks of white and yellow, so it’s not the same for every person but the fact that it inspired him to set this music in a part key so meaningfully, there’s a lot of inspiration we can gain from that as a musician.”

Indeed, Cottis has set the theme for this year as Chroma, inspired by British filmmaker Derek Jarman’s book of the same name, which describes life and his interactions with the colour palette.

Electric Blue, she says, is a program that explores the meaning of blue to humans.

“We’ve got the deep blue of the ocean. We can feel blue. All of these aspects, really connecting the sound of music to the feeling we get when we look at blue in nature or blue in art,” she says.

Sine Winther

Australian pianist Sine Winther will perform Scriabin’s F-sharp minor piano concerto with the CSO. Photo: Conangla Fernandes.

Also on the program is Scriabin’s F-sharp minor piano concerto, a ”blue” key in the composer’s own colour system, featuring leading young Australian pianist Sine Winther, who describes it as “extraordinarily soulful … sweeping through a sea of despair and turmoil, soul-cleansing tranquillity, and mercurial vivacity”.

Promoting Australian performers and composers is a mission of the CSO and something Cottis herself is passionate about.

So the program boasts not one but two world premieres of Australian compositions.

One is a commission fittingly called Kinds of Blue by Miriama Young.

Cottis says she was asked to write a piece of music for the same orchestra size as the Rimski-Korsakov somehow inspired by the colour blue.

She came up with the idea of being immersed in the massive canvases of American artist Mark Rothko.

Miriama Young

Australian composer Miriama Young. The CSO will perform her work Kinds of Blue. Photo: Ishna Jacobs.

The other piece is a commission from two CSO supporters, Gisella Pullen and Karl Gordon, for composer Harry Sdraulig, who draws on Jarman’s experimental film Blue.

Beyond the ridge, the ranges far also takes inspiration from the ACT’s surrounding mountains so loved by the couple and will feature CSO principal cello Patrick Suthers.

For Cottis, it evokes how you look at mountains in this distance and they are hues of blue.

Fostering Australian music starts at home for the CSO, with its new Kingsland Fellows program recently announcing its first five scholars: Mia Hughes (violin), Enola Jefferis (cello), Milan Kolundzija (clarinet), Jackson Boyd (trumpet) and Vivienne Tran (piano).

The program provides regular workshops, and audition preparation, with concertmaster Kirsten Williams and other CSO musicians, as well as masterclasses and professional development opportunities with Cottis.

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Cottis says these sorts of opportunities are golden and can be life-changing, as it was for her.

“Sometimes, as a musician or creative person, often it takes just someone to come along and open our minds to a different way of thinking, or extend a particular way of thinking, or even just to reassure us we’re on the right path,” she says.

“Certainly for me, when I was younger studying conducting, I had numerous experiences where it just felt like I had this kind of tunnel vision with what I wanted to achieve and all of a sudden I could see the horizon around me.”

Electric Blue is presented at Llewellyn Hall, ANU School of Music, 7:30 pm, 26 April and 27 April. Visit the CSO website.

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