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Jessica Cottis returns to Canberra to conduct a CSO concert with a nature theme

The Canberra Symphony Orchestra. Llewellyn Series: Piano. Llewellyn Hall, ANU School of Music. Conductor: Jessica Cottis. Pianist: Daniel de Borah. March 29 and 30 at 7.30pm. Tickets: or 1300 795 012.

Jessica Cottis will be making her Canberra Symphony Orchestra conducting debut on March 29. But while the Anglo-Australian conductor is now based in Britain she's a frequent visitor to her home country and is far from a stranger in the national capital.

"My father was an Australian defence attache and my family moved every three years but my father would always return to Canberra. He ended his career as commandant at Fairbairn."

On one of her frequent Australian conducting visits she was invited by the CSO's chief conductor and artistic director, Nicholas Milton, to conduct the orchestra and decided to take the opportunity to return to Llewellyn Hall, where she performed her first organ recital.

"It's very close to my heart. It's lovely to be back."

As for the concert, Cottis says, "I was interested in using the idea of nature throughout the program."


The concert program was worked out as a collaboration between Cottis and the CSO.

"They were keen for me to conduct some Beethoven," Cottis says. In keeping with the nature theme, they decided on the composer's Sixth Symphony, known as the "Pastoral".

She says she first heard the "Pastoral", one of the best-known musical depictions of nature, with evocations of flowing water and birdcalls as well as a raging storm, when she was four or five years old.

"It's a great piece for young people."

Another piece with bird calls is Einojuhani Rautavaara's 1972 Cantus Arcticus (Concerto for Birds and Orchestra) - but in this case, the sounds are real.Recordings of birdsong taped near the Arctic Circle as well as the bogs of Liminka in northern Finland.are integrated into the orchestral music.

Cottis says the concerto has an element of mysticism as well as being down to earth - "there's a dichotomy of extremes in one piece".

Less obviously connected to nature is the third piece in the concert, Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No.1 in C minor with Daniel de Borah as soloist. It's not obviously programmatic, though Cottis says the concerto, with its virtuosic piano part, "has a lot of rhythmic vitality to it" and in that sense could be likened to the natural world which has its own rhythms.

Cottis studied organ, piano and musicology at the ANU School of Music and went on to study with organist Marie-Claire Alain in Paris and an award-winning career before carpal tunnel syndrome put a premature end to it. She studied law for a year but although she loved it intellectually she found it impossible to walk away from music and applied to the post-graduate conducting course at the Royal College of Music. She graduated in 2009 and was awarded the academy's top conducting prizes.

She says that since graduating her rise has been "stratospheric" and she has conducted orchestras in Britain, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. In her 30s, she has never felt discriminated against while on the podium conducting in what is still a male-dominated field - "It doesn't matter whether you're male or female" - but says that the hoped-for gender balance when female conductors like Simone Young and Marin Alsop came to prominence a couple of decades ago has not yet come to pass. But she sees herself and other women conductors as role models for others in what she hopes will be a more equitable future.

"I conducted the BBC Proms last summer and I had a number of letters from little girls and boys but the ones that really resonated were the ones from little girls who said, 'When I grow up I want to be a conductor."