Q+A with Emi Ferguson, H+H Principal Flute

H+H principal flute Emi Ferguson grew up in Brookline listening to the Handel and Haydn Society. She stretches the boundaries of the modern-day musician as a flutist, singer, and composer, performing with period ensembles around the world. This month, she’ll light up the Symphony Hall stage as the soloist for Mozart’s first flute concerto, one of the pieces on the program for Mozart + Mendelssohn. We sat down with Emi to learn more about her practice, her perspective, and what we can expect from her performances next weekend.

When did you first encounter Mozart’s first flute concerto?

I first encountered it when I was maybe 11 years old. It would’ve been on the top floor of the Brookline Music School. My teacher Judy Grant, who runs the Boston Flute Academy now, introduced me to it. I actually have the music from when I first started playing it, and it’s got all my markings. This is a very iconic flute piece, one that gets played on every audition, so it’s a piece that every flute player knows—and goes on a lot of journeys with. They’re with it for their entire career, and it can grow with you, as you change.

How has it grown with you? Has your perspective on it changed?

Getting to do it on a period instrument has been incredibly healthy for me, and has changed my perspective quite a bit. I’ve played it a lot on the modern flute, but this will actually be my first time playing it on period flute. It allows you to peek into what Mozart was hearing and thinking, but for me, it also allows me to strip away all of the baggage that musicians build up with the most iconic pieces of an instrument’s repertoire. We’ve heard them done so many different ways, and there are so many opinions, but getting to do those pieces on period instruments allows me to come to the music with fresh eyes and ears. It’s really nice to be able to look at this work as a new piece.

Tell us about the instrument that you’ll be playing for Mozart + Mendelssohn.

I ordered this flute from the Tutz flute makers in Austria when I became an H+H principal player because I wanted something that could give me a really wide variety of colors to choose from. They make these beautiful reproductions of historical instruments that allow you to find your own sound, but also give you a lot of stability.

How is your flute different from a modern flute?

The first thing people will see is that it’s made of wood. The sound is definitely quieter than a modern flute—it’s quite a sweet sound. And instead of the many keys that a modern flute has, it has only eight—which was quite a big deal at the time! The Baroque flute I use for Bach only has one key, so there’s quite a significant technological advancement by the time we get to Mozart’s era. Mozart has so many great chromatic moments in this concerto, moments that shade the color and bring us into a new world, and that’s only possible because we have these keys. These composers really were writing for the instruments they had on hand, and getting to see the changes makes you appreciate how special those moments would have been for audiences at the time: Hearing a chromatic scale would have been like, “Whoa! That’s the most virtuosic thing ever!”

What do you love about historically informed performance?

It really does allow you to get into the time and place of the composer who was writing the music. We try to match our instruments to what they might have heard at the time. But even today, flute players play on very different set-ups, depending on where you are in the world and what works for you. It’s kind of funny to imagine people 300 years in the future trying to distill down what’s standard right now—you’re not going to get the full range of possibilities, and that’s important for us to remember. There were many people whose instruments didn’t survive, or who didn’t get to write down their thoughts on how to play this music: We only have materials from the privileged or lucky few. So when we’re looking back in time, it’s important to me that we’re taking it all with a grain of salt, and trying to get into the performance practice mindset of what a player at that time might have done. It’s just one experience of many.

Tell us about your process when preparing for a concert with H+H.

It’s always going to be a dual process. First, there’s research, whether it’s reading or looking at the scores themselves. There is so much in the music, if you think about why the composer was writing down the things that they did. And with Mozart, we have a lot of letters, which is fantastic! We can really get an idea of what his personality was like.

Second, I combine that research with what this music means to me. Of course, I have hundreds of years of music between when these composers were alive and everything I’ve experienced as a 21st-century musician. I would be a fool to pretend that all of that doesn’t enter into my decision-making, because it’s imossible to unhear it. Mozart couldn’t possibly have done a performance of Bach in the way Bach would have heard it! Times had changed. So we will never get a truly authentic performance of Bach or Mozart—and I don’t think we want to. Back then, as a woman, I wouldn’t have been playing the flute. What we have to do is take a look at the worlds of these composers and think about what they would have wanted from a performance of their work, and how they would have wanted it to continue to live on today.

What does being a woman in classical music mean to you?

I had this realization last year that instruments in the Western classical tradition have been entirely designed—created and recreated and recreated—for men. For men’s bodies, men’s hands. It’s a very thought-provoking thing to come to grips with and to reckon with the fact that this instrument that I’ve dedicated my life to was not built for “me.” Sometimes, I think about the unanswerable question of what this instrument might have been—not that it would be better or worse—if women had been playing it in the same way as men. That’s a big elephant in the room when we talk about the idea of authentic performance: If we’re going to go to the extremes of authenticity, it becomes very exclusionary—of women, and of all marginalized people in the classical world. It’s fantastic how much things have changed, and are continuing to change. So many women have taken this instrument and truly made it their own. It’s a huge privilege to be part of that.

We owe that to some pretty fierce women in the 20th century who entered a field where it was not acceptable for women to be playing the flute, women like Frances Blaisdell and Doriot Anthony Dwyer—who was principal flute at the BSO, and one of the first women in the United States to be named a principal player. I felt so honored that as a high school student, I was able to have lessons with her. She lived just a few streets away from me in Brookline. I will always be indebted to and grateful for her, the women of her generation, and all the work they had to do to make their voices heard. I’m very lucky.

Why should people come to Mozart + Mendelssohn?

Mendelssohn dug Bach’s manuscripts out from a closet and said, “This is great music! We should put it on!” At the time, it wasn’t in fashion to play old music. If you were going out, you wanted to hear something new. So Mendelssohn was one of the first people to champion Bach’s music after his death—the original historical music proponent! It’s really fun to play his work—specifically, the incredible Reformation symphony, which features a wonderful flute moment between the third and fourth movements. This concert is definitely a flute party!

But what I would most hope for anybody coming to the show is that they have a good time. Sit there, take it in, and sit with any questions that come into your head. Just be present. Live music was so privileged, yes, but also normalized in Mozart and Mendelssohn’s time, in a way that it isn’t today. I’m excited for people to experience that shared participation in music-making and music-listening, and I can’t wait to feel the energy of the H+H audience again.

Join us for Mozart + Mendelssohn next month to see Emi in action! Act now: One concert is already sold out, and tickets for Friday, March 17 are going fast. Click here to save your seat.