Australian-born British conductor Jessica Cottis reached for a pen and paper during a phone call from London in mid-December.

“Go ahead,” she said as the caller ticked off a list of Tucson must-do’s/must-sees:

  • Mexican food, a no-brainer.
  • Sonoran hot dogs, a Tucson signature delicacy.
  • Saguaro National Park, a forest of towering saguaro cacti with tangled limbs giving you all sorts of greetings.

“Do you have any wildlife?” she asks.

Do we. Watch out for the javelinas, you offer as a friendly warning.

Her curiosity is to be expected. She’s never been to Tucson. In fact, she had never stepped foot in Arizona before her plane landed in Tucson Monday for her American debut with the Tucson Symphony Orchestra.

“I can’t wait. I’m really excited,” said Cottis, who lived outside Washington, D.C., when she was very young and her father, an Australian diplomat, was stationed in the States. “I’ve been reading about it and it sounds interesting. I am really, really eager to get out to the desert, actually.”

Cottis, 38, is also eager to conduct the TSO in a program that features the Tucson premiere of a work by a British composer who is all the rage in Europe.

Thomas Adès “Three Studies from Couperin” opens a program anchored by Mozart’s Symphony No. 29 and Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto.

“In programming I wanted something to connect the Mozart to the Shostakovich Cello Concerto,” Cottis explained. “I wanted to do something that combined old and new and make them fit comfortably side by side so Tom’s piece seems to be the link to enable us to do that.”

This will be the first time Tucson has heard from Adés, who based “Three Studies” on the French Baroque composer’s piano pieces “Les Amusemens,” “Les Tours de Passe-Passe” and “L’âme en peine.” But rather than just simply reimagine the works for a 21st-century ear, Adès inserts contemporary sensibilities that bring out ideas long overlooked in the originals.

“It’s a great piece, a really superb piece. Yes this is new music, contemporary music, but what he has done is so clever from basically taking pieces, he’s using exactly the same harmonies, the same rhythms,” Cottis explained. “They even have the same bars as the originals.”

Cottis views her Tucson concerts as a turning point in her decade-long career, perhaps an open door that could lead to more American engagements squeezed into a career that this year will find her leading the London Philharmonic Orchestra after Tucson and premiering a new opera for London’s Royal Opera House later this year.

“We’ll see what happens but it does feel like a new chapter in the book of me,” she said.

Cottis, whose career has mostly been focused on conducting in London and the UK, with frequent baton turns in her native Australia, started her professional life as an organist. But a wrist injury sent her in another direction, one that as a young musician had never dawned on her.

“It never crossed my mind,” she said. “For me, a conductor was an older male and I think conducting has been archetypically a masculine (position).”

She realizes that as a female conductor, she is part of a “a rare and protected species” that defies “these kinds of unspoken hierarchy and traditions.”

“For me, any form of music, whether conducting, performing or playing any type of instrument, it’s completely genderless,” Cottis said. “It has nothing to do with gender. Talent and creativity have no gender, and it will take the world time to catch up. They don’t change until we actively question them.”

Cottis was expecting to arrive in Tucson on Monday and stay for a week, just enough time to explore the mysteries of the desert and get to know Tucson.

“One of the real gifts of conducting is getting to see places. Being a whole week in Tucson allows me to get the flavor of Arizona, as well,” she said. “It feels like a really nice start to 2018.”

Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at cburch@tucson.com or 573-4642.