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New Year's Day Concert: An Interview With Jessica Cottis

Posted on 16 December 2019


Ahead of Royal Northern Sinfonia’s New Year’s Day Concert, we caught up with conductor Jessica Cottis to find out more about her role, what she’s looking forward to about the concert, and her resolutions for the year ahead.

How has 2019 been for you?

It’s been quite an extraordinary year, actually. It’s been super busy in terms of work, travelling around the world conducting really fantastic orchestras in symphonic programmes, a fair amount of opera this year as well, new music premieres and standard repertoire as well. It’s been very exciting and amazing to get to grips with all of this incredible music. For me, this year has been very varied. I feel like I’ve gone on a path of further development and further understanding of what it is to be a musician and how to share that music with people.

Tell us about your role as a conductor.

A conductor provides communication with orchestras, and then through that music they provide communication with audiences as well. We need to have such a deep knowledge of music, musical styles and history. For example, it’s not possible to conduct Mozart if you don’t have some knowledge of Mozart’s background, where his interests lay, what his family history was, whether you’ve read his letters, these kinds of things. I think about how we make this relevant to our audiences, and how we communicate and transport our audiences to get something from this music. And I passionately believe with classical music that the wonderful thing about it is that whilst it’s my job to know all about this, as an audience you don’t need any understanding of it in a way, except just an openness to hear sound.

There’s a beautiful saying by Francis Bacon: “Music, it bypasses the brain and speaks directly to the heart.” And ultimately what we do as conductors is to take the life experiences – the intellectual and heartfelt experiences – of someone else, a great genius composer, and bring that to life today and share that with our audiences. And there’s something hugely timeless about it.

Are you looking forward to working with Royal Northern Sinfonia?

I’ve worked with Royal Northern Sinfonia a couple of times – once last year and once the year before – so it’s lovely to return for a third year. They’re an amazing orchestra, an amazing group of people, so I’m super excited to be back. It’s just nice for me as well – my mother’s father’s family come from that area. I never spent time there as a child, but there’s always something nice about returning to areas where our family line has had some kind of history.

Why do Viennese classics make such a good accompaniment to a New Year?

There’s something about this music, the music by the Strauss family in particular, that I feel is just so infectious. So much of it is based on dance forms or catchy marches, and it’s almost impossible to sit there and listen to it and not feel emotionally uplifted by it.

Any day is good for a Strauss Waltz. Starting in the morning with something like that I think would probably put a spring in most people’s step. Why not? We’re celebrating new beginnings. New Year is a great time to consider where we might like to be; how we might like to be as people; what our ways of being are; and I think for many of us it’s a great time of year to think positively and to have hope for the year ahead, in a community-spirited way.

This music, in the wonderful hall at Sage Gateshead, is a brilliant way to celebrate really. I think the acoustic and environment at Sage Gateshead are absolutely perfect for Viennese music such as Strauss; the audience will really relish the quality of the sound in that hall.

Do you have any New Year’s resolutions for 2020?

I resolutely don’t do New Year’s resolutions! I think it’s perhaps a little different for me. I travel so much that I feel that every time that I go to a new city or a new country, or travel in between, it allows a lot of time for reflection. I feel lucky to be able to reflect on my place within the world and see lots of other cultures and societies, which of course impacts greatly on how we understand ourselves and how we understand others.

This interview is also available to listen to via the Sage Gateshead Backstage podcast.