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Sydney Morning Herald
May 27, 2014
Jessica Cottis is featured in an article for the Sydney Morning Herald. Harriet Cunningham writes:
Is conducting a man's game? Not any more.
The classical music twitterverse had a field day last month when Jorma Panula, Finnish 83-year-old conducting guru, said women were biologically unsuited to conducting certain pieces of music, and should seek out "feminine" repertoire. Male colleagues from around the world rushed to apologise for his views, dismissing them as out of touch. And yet, as Jessica Cottis, Assistant Conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra admits, it is a profession with a strong traditional gender bias.
“Conducting has always been archetypally masculine,” says Cottis. “If you think of the pictures of Karajan [legendary chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic] on his CD covers, they’re just oozing masculinity.”
A recent survey by UK writer Jessica Duchen came up with over 100 women conductors, but almost none of them in top tier orchestras. Exceptions to the rule include American conductor Marin Alsop, who made headlines when she became the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms, and Australia’s own Simone Young, who was the first woman to conduct Wagner’s Ring Cycle. But in spite of women conductors’ many achievements, there are still no female names heading the world’s top orchestras. Yet.
Jessica Cottis is one of the big hopes for change. Born in Sale, Victoria, she was a professional organist when she was struck down by carpal tunnel syndrome, a repetitive-strain injury which left four of her fingers paralysed.
“It was a devastating year. But in the back of my mind I’d been fascinated with what conductors did from a very young age … I heard a performance of Rosenkavalier in Vienna and it was at that moment I thought I have to conduct. I applied to the Royal Academy of Music in London and somehow or other, by lucky stars, or maybe lucky socks, I got in.”
Cottis now has a truly global career: she works in Australia and New Zealand, but is also in demand in Europe, flying back straight after this week’s concert for a week of Wagner in Scotland.
“I’m not aware of having been negatively impacted by being a female,” she says. “I haven’t experienced discrimination. The main thing that has held me back is that, consciously or otherwise, we look towards role models, and when I was little I didn’t see any female conductors.”
The rise of figures like Cottis hopefully means that will change, but she issues a challenge:
“We are by no means on equal footing. My really big question is when will we see a female chief conductor of, say, the Concertgebouw or the Berlin Philharmonic or the LSO or the Chicago Symphony Orchestra? Or the Sydney Symphony Orchestra?”
Jessica Cottis conducts the Sydney Symphony Orchestra playing Mozart and Gershwin this Thursday at City Recital Hall at 7pm.