Who or what inspired you to take up conducting and pursue a career in music?
I started my musical journey as a two year-old, learning piano whilst sitting on my mother’s lap, and had a career later on as a professional organist. It wasn’t until a wrist injury forced me to stop playing that I considered conducting. I’d studied law for a year but also spent some time in Vienna where the quality of the sound and the musical colours coming out of the Staatsoper orchestra pit just blew me away. Music has never really been a career, it’s a way of being.
Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life?
The opportunity to learn an instrument in the first place is the most significant influence. As a child who found the expression of emotion particularly difficult, music was a real force of good. Later influences: Marie-Claire Alain, my organ teacher in Paris; Colin Metters and Sir Colin Davis at RAM; and Vladimir Ashkenazy, whom I assisted for 2 years at the Sydney Symphony.
What, for you, is the most challenging part of being a conductor? And the most fulfilling aspect?
Most challenging is the multi-complexity of working internationally with often very different orchestras and their unique ways of making music, often on a weekly basis. One needs to be able to adapt very quickly, and communicate in a way that is well beyond words. But this is also a thrilling aspect.
Most fulfilling: bringing a piece to life, and also the sheer sound.
As a conductor, how do you communicate your ideas about a work to the orchestra?
It changes depending on the piece and the orchestra. I prefer to show as much as I can and communicate in a non-verbal manner.
How exactly do you see your role? Inspiring the players/singers? Conveying the vision of the composer?
Is there one work which you would love to conduct?
The Ring Cycle
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?
I find it very fascinating how music sounds different in different venues. We create music for a specific venue with every performance. All this said, I do love the Royal Albert Hall.
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
Sviatoslav Richter, Pierre Boulez, Jessye Norman, Borodin Quartet, and the music of Nielsen, Beethoven, Dvorak, Messiaen, Byrd, Janacek, Lili Boulanger, Richard Meale to name but a few. Ravel is one of the greatest.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Being able to share with others what we love, and to live from that.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Honesty, curiosity, focus, and a balance of the forensic and global.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
I think if I went on an Antarctic expedition to observe penguins, that would be a pretty perfect happiness. Otherwise, flying. Or somewhere in the world, in nature, observing butterflies. But with all honesty, I believe more in the meaning of fulfilment than the idea of perfect happiness.
What is your most treasured possession?
A family ring, passed down from my great-great-grandmother, through successive generations to me.
What is your present state of mind?
Excited about combining two of my great interests: music and nature, for the Lost Words Prom.
Jessica Cottis conducts The Lost Words Prom on Sunday 25 August, a unique family event inspired by the bestselling book by Robert Macfarlane. More information
Jessica Cottis made her BBC Proms debut at the Royal Albert Hall in 2016, returning in 2017 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. She returns to the Proms again this summer, and this season makes important debuts with the LA Philharmonic, London Symphony Orchestra, Singapore Symphony, and English Chamber Orchestra. Cottis will also return twice to the Royal Opera House: to conduct the premiere of ‘The Monstrous Child’ by Gavin Higgins; and again for a new production by Gerald Barry for their 2019/2020 season.