This article is drawn from the first issue of Tafel: our new magazine for the musically curious. Offered three times a year, this publication will, we hope, welcome new friends as well as extend the rich conversations we are already having with so many of you. Read the entire first issue here.

Stretching musical boundaries: a chat with flutist Emi Ferguson

Emi Ferguson is a flutist whose wide-ranging repertoire spans several centuries. Passionate about challenging notions of what is expected of modern-day musicians, she is principal flute with the Handel and Haydn Society in Boston, and as a soloist, has performed alongside Yo-Yo Ma, Paul Simon, and James Taylor. We had the chance to chat with Emi ahead of her solo debut with Tafelmusik in September.  

What are some common misconceptions about the flute and flutists?

The flute has been found in cultures around the world throughout human history, and the instrument carries a collective cultural history no matter where you are performing. In the United States, most people think of the modern metal flute, so it is particularly fun to share some of its ancestors and talk about how they are still evolving. Contemporary performers like Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull) and now Lizzo are re-popularizing the instrument, so we have a whole new generation of people excited about the flute!

If music had not been possible as a career, what would you most likely be doing now?

I became very interested in Public Health and Epidemiology, and as a teenager I spent some time in South Africa working with communities hit hardest by the HIV epidemic. During my undergrad at The Juilliard School, I cross-registered at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and spent my summers working at Mount Sinai Hospital.

I almost decided to leave Juilliard to pursue medicine professionally. Ultimately I continued with music, finding ways to fuse both passions through performance advocacy and studies on arts as a tool for infection prevention, which earned me a Scholastic Distinction award at Juilliard.

You enjoy “stretching the boundaries of what is expected of modern day musicians.” What are some examples?

I’ve always been fascinated by the connections between the often silo-ed areas in music—contemporary, renaissance, late romantic, etc. My job is to create a performance that is as close to what the composer was thinking, while bringing my own life experiences and choices to the music.

This internal dialogue between musical genres and instruments means that I often blend them. In my album Amour Cruel, I re-imagined 17th-century French airs de cours as 21st-century pop songs à la Beyonce or Lana Del Rey, blending historical instruments with modern production techniques. In the album Fly the Coop with continuo band Ruckus, we re-arranged Bach’s flute and keyboard works to incorporate our 21st-century ears and sensibilities while staying true to our historical performance training.

What was your first introduction to the music of Mozart?

The first piece I ever played by Mozart was the Andante in C Major for flute and orchestra—and boy did I play it! It is a beautiful stand-alone movement and shares many aspects with the Concerto for flute and harp in C Major, which I became obsessed with in high school. I was fortunate enough to perform it with the Juilliard Orchestra and harpist Michelle Gott in Alice Tully Hall.

One of my favourite things about Mozart is how it is all essentially chamber music. He often writes the flute as the top, shimmering line that glides over the orchestra, colouring the activity underneath. I can’t wait to do all of this in Toronto with Masumi Nagasawa, Elisa Citterio, and Tafelmusik!

As a musician who plays both modern and baroque flute, how does the instrument choice affect your approach to Mozart, for example?

I often compare the differences between classical and modern flute to riding a horse/driving a race car. Both are going to get you somewhere, but the method is going to be very different, requiring different skills. 

The fingering systems and construction of the classical and modern flutes are completely different, which changes the timbre, resistance, volume, and colours. You can play beautiful Mozart on both while taking advantage of the special things each one is capable of. This music is a joy to play no matter what the setup.

To what extent are classical musicians allowed to put their own stamp on music that has been revered and canonized for centuries?

To be blunt, when the composer is dead, the performer has the ultimate freedom to do whatever they like (within reason)! There are always questions of taste and execution, but I think that any composer would be excited that people are continuing to play their music and make it their own hundreds of years after its premiere. For me, music that can “withstand” different interpretations is what makes a piece truly great. Bach’s music is a good example, as people continue to arrange and re-arrange it in new and exciting ways. The question I always ask myself is: am I respecting the essence of this music?

Emi Ferguson is a guest soloist in Tafelmusik’s Mozart Party concerts September 24 to 27, 2020 at Koerner Hall, TELUS Centre, and September 29, 2020 at George Weston Recital Hall, Meridian Arts Centre.

Photo credit: Rebecca Fay