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The Grace of Adamyan's Mendelssohn and the Charge of Ferguson's Bach

Left: Diana Adamyan facing the viewer and holding a violin; Right: Emi Ferguson facing to the right holding a flute
Adamyan: Zaven Khachikyan; Ferguson: Fay Fox
Violinist Diana Adamyan (left) and Flutist Emi Ferguson (right)

Sunday, October 15, 2023

On WCRB In Concert with the Celebrity Series of Boston, flutist Emi Ferguson and the early music ensemble Ruckus perform J.S. Bach's music in a program called "Fly the Coop," and Diana Adamyan is the soloist in Felix Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto with the Boston Pops and conductor Keith Lockhart.

Emi Ferguson, flute
"FLY THE COOP: Bach Sonatas and Preludes"

The Craftsman, BWV 1034 (ca. 1724)
Prelude in G Major, after BWV 884
Sonata in E Minor, BWV 1034
Prelude in E Minor, after BWV 855
Sonata in E Minor, BWV 1034

The Teacher and the Student, BWV 1033 (ca.1717/1731)
Prelude in C Minor, after BWV 847
Aria, from the Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
Sonata in C Major, BWV 1033
Prelude in C Minor, after BWV 999
Sonata in C Major, BWV 1033

The Eccentric, BWV 1035 (ca. 1741)
Sonata in E Major, BWV 1035
Prelude in E Major, after BWV 815a

This portion of the concert was recorded on February 11, 2023, at the Calderwood Studio at GBH in Boston, and is no longer available on demand.

See the program notes for this concert

Diana Adamyan, violin
Boston Pops, Keith Lockhart, conductor

Felix MENDELSSOHN Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64

This portion of the concert was recorded on May 19, 2022, at Symphony Hall in Boston, and is not available on demand.

Learn more about and see upcoming concerts from the Celebrity Series of Boston and the Boston Pops.

To hear flutist Emi Ferguson and the founder of Ruckus, Clay Zeller-Townson, discuss "Fly the Coop", click on the audio player above and read the transcript below:


Alan McLellan I'm Alan McLellan for WCRB in concert and I'm here with Emi Ferguson and Clay Zeller-Townson and they have a marvelous album that we hear fairly regularly on WCRB. It's "Fly the Coop," an innovative view of Bach and Bach's music. You know, when I encounter Bach, I don't usually think of it as fun music. I don't think of it as not fun music, but I just don't think of it in the context of fun. But when I hear you guys, that's really fun. It's amazing, so congratulations.

Emi Ferguson Thank you, and thank you for all of your support of the album. It's such an honor.

Alan McLellan Well, we are thrilled to be able to feature it and thrilled particularly to feature your concert tonight on WCRB in concert, and the essence of it is the essence of the album. Can you talk about how you got into this idea of Bach being a little bit more fun and hip than we usually think of?

Emi Ferguson Well, I mean, I think... Yeah, we've really created this myth of who Bach is today. You know, he's become this museum piece rather than a human being. And we've kind of taken this project as a way to get back to like what is the essence of him rather than the myth of him. Yes, he was a great academic. Yes, he was this great composer, but he also loved to have a good time and could be found, you know, when he wasn't working at the St Thomas Church, down the street at Zimmerman's cafe drinking beer, drinking coffee and, you know, playing music into the night with his friends and university students in the town. And that's like the spirit that we're really trying to capture in this album of that, sort-of, hanging out with the people you love and respect and just want to make music with.

Clay Zeller-Townson Yeah, and he was a person. He lived in a time and a place where his music was swimming around Leipzig. And yes, there [are] these very grand, almost sometimes unattainable, transcending ideas in his music. But in these pieces there is so much, just, human joy. And that is our entry point.

Alan McLellan Wow, and that really communicates, Clay, with Ruckus and with Emi. You know, when I first saw the album, I thought, "Emi Ferguson and her group that she's just gotten together for this album." But you are a group that has collaborated with all different ensembles. Can you talk a little bit about Ruckus, in general?

Clay Zeller-Townson Sure, yeah. So the... Ruckus is a continuo band, at its core. We have six musicians who play what is essentially the 18th-century correlation to a jazz rhythm section: guitars, bass, keyboards, no drummer usually, [Ferguson laughs] and bassoon, cello. So that is really one of the defining features of the 18th-century musical world. The baroque music is the music of the continuo era. So with having this core we can shapeshift around, we can be with Emi, we can feature violins or singers. It's a transformative group that at its core tries to bring this music to ourselves in our current moment and feel like we can approach it with a looseness and without an academic baggage behind us.

Alan McLellan Right. And it has a 20th and 21st-century parallel in the rhythm section. I mean, you know, there's that wonderful sense of guitar, bass, maybe a piano keyboard and drums, for jazz music. So the 18th-century had the same thing, right?

Clay Zeller-Townson Exactly, exactly. The continuo section was your rhythm section. And from there, all sorts of textural ideas are generated that can create a frame for a piece of music in the Baroque era. And we like to be especially open and flexible with what kinds of sounds and ideas we can pull from these instruments.

Alan McLellan That's great. Emi, how did you encounter Ruckus first?

Emi Ferguson Well, we've all known each other for a very long time, and it just seemed like the perfect group to collaborate on with this album because a lot of us were trained through Juilliard's Historical Performance program and sort of met at different points through that program. And the idea that we're performing on original instruments, we're performing on instruments that Bach would have been hearing at the time, whether that's a baroque flute that has only one key and made out of wood rather than your usual metal that people see today, to theorbo, which is a very, very large baroque guitar.

Alan McLellan Enormous.

Emi Ferguson Enormous, yeah!

Alan McLellan It's an experience to see someone carrying a theorbo around because it's, you know, unreal in the length of it. Yeah.

Emi Ferguson Yeah.

Clay Zeller-Townson The giraffe of the guitar family.

Alan McLellan [McLellan laughs] That's right.

Emi Ferguson Exactly! But this idea that we were all trained in, sort of, investigating what it might have sounded like for Bach and for people of his time, the idea of performance practice and taking that in its most, sort of, core spirit and making that performance practice a living performance practice... We are doing the same things. We are looking at this music in the same way that an 18th-century musician would look at it, but we're doing it from a 21st-century perspective. So it's trying to combine both of those and maintain that our kind of performance practice is a living performance practice in the way that Bach himself as a master improviser would have done.

Alan McLellan 'Cause it's quite a conceit for 21st-century people to say, "Oh, yes, I'm doing it in the way that we know it was done, because—"

Emi Ferguson [Ferguson laughs] Well, that's impossible. I'm a woman and I am playing the flute. That wouldn't have been allowed. So already we've made a big, grave error, not to mention all the other things that are impossible to replicate. The first and foremost being our ears. We've all heard 300 years of music between then and now, and that's what we love to focus in on: what are the things that sort of resonate after Bach with Bach's music that we can bring back into his works in these performances in the way that we think he would have, because we know he loved to borrow from folk music, pop music, other composers. So, again, in that spirit of his.

Alan McLellan Right, absolutely, yeah.

Clay Zeller-Townson And the question of, well, what's worthy is to do music that's authentic to you. And period. So, you know, of course we all are obsessed with the beauty and the humanness of feeling that is in the Baroque period. But, what's authentic to us is just going to be so different than what's authentic to, you know, "Joe Baroque Bassoon" from 1707. [Ferguson laughs]

Alan McLellan Exactly. Yes. And I think, you know, that there are those of us who grew up in a... When I was a music student, you know, there was music that was "worthy," as you say, you know. I love that you use that word. And then there was music that was, you know, light. The other side, you know, and I think you're absolutely hitting it spot on when you say that it's the music that speaks to you that's worthy. So we come to flute sonatas of Bach and you have some special insights into these. I see Bach the craftsman, Bach the teacher, Bach the eccentric. Can you talk about the sonatas that you're playing on this program?

Emi Ferguson Absolutely. Well, you know, Bach had many different roles in his lifetime. I mean, he had 13 kids who survived infancy, and that's a huge part of his life. He had all of the students he worked with at the St Thomas Church, and he had his various different employers. But what doesn't fit into this whole scene is his pieces for the flute. We don't really know why he wrote these pieces other than because he wanted to. He first encountered the flute when he was in Köthen, between 1717 and 1723. He met the world's most amazing flute player, Buffardin, who was French and who was traveling around Europe with this newly reconfigured flute that had been redesigned around 1680 in the court of Louis the 14th, and by, you know, the late 1710s, it gets to Bach when he's visiting Dresden and he is like, "yes." And we know this about him with lots of other instruments, too. He loved to experiment with new instrumental designs and writing music that was going to be featured on these brand new instruments at the time. And the flute for him was that.

He first encounters it when he's in his mid-thirties and unlike a lot of his other secular music, which he only wrote during the Köthen period, he wrote for the flute for the remainder of his life. We have—well, it's contested exactly how many [Ferguson and McLellan laugh] sonatas we have, but we have a mixture of flute and obbligato keyboard, so where all of the notes are completely written out, and flute and continuo, which is what we're playing tonight and gives us a lot of room to make them very personalized. And this was something that Bach was known to have said, that a piece of music really isn't finished until the performer gets their hands on it and makes it their own. And you'll hear that tonight in the three sonatas we'll be presenting in chronological order: his E minor sonata from 1724, his C major sonata from 1731 (and that is one of our, sort of, a little bit.... there's some question marks surrounding it), and then 1741 his E major, his last of the continuo sonatas that is also authentic.

Alan McLellan So just to clarify, you mentioned that the continuo sonatas are for a band like we have. But—

Emi Ferguson [Ferguson laughs] Well...

Alan McLellan Well, or [McLellan and Zeller-Townson laugh] they're for a continuo group of some kind.

Clay Zeller-Townson Yeah.

Emi Ferguson Yeah which, you know, normally would be a harpsichord and a bowed bass of some sort, probably a cello. And that's what you usually see when you see these flute sonatas performed. If someone is doing it with anything in addition to the keyboard, it will be with a cello. But of course we, we like to add—

Alan McLellan You like to add. [McLellan laughs]

Emi Ferguson —everything in because it's so fun!

Clay Zeller-Townson Yeah, we want all the crayons. [McLellan and Ferguson laughs]

Alan McLellan That's right. That's great. And the other sonatas, just to be clear, are obbligato, which just means one keyboard.

Emi Ferguson One keyboard part, yeah, yeah. And they're very—they may be called flute sonatas, but they are equally flute and keyboard sonatas, flute and harpsichord sonatas. They are duos very, very much so, as are these, but only one of the lines is obbligato. My flute line is obbligato. And then what Ruckus has is a single line between them that has a bass line and basically chord symbols that we sort of pick a path between and choose how to orchestrate. And then our guitar players and our keyboard player, they are improvising based on those chord symbols throughout the entire show.

Alan McLellan So in jazz, you might call it the changes.

Clay Zeller-Townson The changes, the lead sheet, yeah.

Alan McLellan Yeah.

Clay Zeller-Townson Exactly, yeah. And as you mentioned, we have—we came up with these three subtitles for each of these sonatas to both help us inform our decisions and how we're approaching each of these sonatas, and based on where Bach was at his time when he wrote them. So the first sonata, the Craftsman, it's a very... I mean, as the title suggests, this is perfectly proportioned music. It is stunningly beautiful, very clear, quite heavy, almost orchestral in depth of scale, even though it's just for these two melodic lines. And the second sonata we titled The Teacher and The Student, and—

Alan McLellan These are your titles.

Emi Ferguson Yeah. [Ferguson laughs].

Clay Zeller-Townson These are our titles.

Alan McLellan Not Bach's, but it's ok, you're—

Clay Zeller-Townson Not Bach's, not a German musicologist's.

Emi Ferguson But again, going back to the human side of him, who was he and how was he, sort of, growing and changing as a composer and as a person?

Alan McLellan Right. And it just, it seems to you that that's what he's doing in this music. He's being a teacher and being a craftsman.

Clay Zeller-Townson Right. Right.

Alan McLellan Go on, please. [McLellan chuckles]

Clay Zeller-Townson The interesting thing about the second, the C major Sonata, is that likely Bach wrote this in conjunction with his child, C.P.E. Bach. So what we're using is really a dialog between father and son, teacher and student, and then ourselves. So C.P.E's baselines are... quite simple. They're likely written by a teenaged music student.

Alan McLellan So Bach took his son's theme and went with it.

Clay Zeller-Townson Other way around. So Bach probably wrote the flute part and then gave it to his son as an exercise in how to write a continuo.

Emi Ferguson Like pulled it out of the closet and was like, "I don't know, take this thing. I wrote it." And we think he probably wrote it for Buffardin, that famous flute player, when he met him in the 1710s and just kind of shelved it and then was like, "Oh, hey, kid." [all laugh]

Alan McLellan "Work with this."

Emi Ferguson Yeah, exactly.

Clay Zeller-Townson And that's sort of... The degree of seriousness of the bass line means that we feel much better about making more alterations to that piece. And then the final sonata, The Eccentric, as we call it, is the latest piece in the program. It really shows Bach encountering newer game-changing styles, very gallant. It has this mid-18th century lightness to it. It's in the key of E major, which [Ferguson shudders, Ferguson and McLellan laugh] finds you in places such as C-sharp minor everywhere, which is, you know, these are very powerful things, keys in the Baroque period. They all they matter so much more.

Alan McLellan And there's so much meaning attached to to all these different keys.

Clay Zeller-Townson For sure. So when you're playing an F sharp major chord all the time, that really gets under your skin as a performer, especially. So we're taking the most liberties with this sonata. It's got the most extreme range of characters that we add to it. And yeah, well...

Alan McLellan And when it comes to a movement like the Siciliano [Ferguson chuckles] it just becomes something absolutely exotic.

Clay Zeller-Townson Yeah. [McLellan chuckles]

Emi Ferguson Yeah. That was... That movement is very, very interesting because in the original, it's, as Clay was saying, in C-sharp minor, which is a key that these instruments, I will say, don't love to play in. It's very challenging because we have crazy fingerings and really difficult tunings to battle. And the way that Bach writes it is that it's a very democratic way of using continuo with an obbligato instrument where the flute line and the continuo line are basically the same thing. But the continuum line is offset by a measure. And it's incredible! You've got these two melody lines that are in dialogue, and yet one of them is also the bass line. So we wanted to feature that. We really wanted to bring that to the fore and so we added a third line. We added a proper bass line, so to speak, which is really inspired by Purcell. So earlier Baroque music, and it's really inspired by "Strike the Viol," a piece that he wrote for countertenor and ensemble and it's got a similar bass line there. So combining that with these sort of ideas of these antiphonal Spanish guitars that are giving us this incredible strumming mixed with licks from like, Rosemary Clooney's crazy arrangements with harpsichord [McLellan laughs], mixed with Clay's favorite, like, saxophone solos—

Alan McLellan Wait, Rosemary Clooney. [Ferguson laughs] Tell me more about that.

Clay Zeller-Townson Oh for sure, yeah.

Emi Ferguson Yeah, she—I mean, it's very funny. There's several songs that she recorded: "Mambo Italiano," "Come On-a My House," and "Botch-a-Me" that all have this harpsichord in them. And I remember I was actually driving from Clay's house in Vermont, and I was listening to the radio, and one of them came on and I had to pull off to the side to make sure I didn't run out of service to find out what this was. So what is this harpsichord solo? Who's singing? What's going on? And I did some research and they had had a harpsichord in their recording session and they had rented it from none other than the Juilliard School. So I called up Elliot Figg, our keyboard player, and was like, "What is this harpsichord? Also can you play like, can you do this?" [Ferguson laughs]

Alan McLellan Because you guys are all associated with the Jullliard School.

Emi Ferguson And he was like, "I know exactly which harpsichord that is." It's huge and has this really cutting sound and those tracks are amazing. I definitely recommend people go listen to them. And Elliot's adding amazing things in there that are reminiscent of that and, just—

Alan McLellan So in this piece, you're adding in the Rosemary Clooney effect.

Emi Ferguson Yeah! So we've got Bach, we've got Purcell, we've got Rosemary Clooney, we've got Lester Young. I mean, like, it could be [Ferguson chuckles] it's like all of our favorite things and the things that intrigue us are thrown into the mix, and... Oh, we got some George Crumb, we've got some "Seagull" moments. [Ferguson laughs].

Clay Zeller-Townson Yeah that's right. (Zeller-Townson laughs]

Emi Ferguson Extended techniques, like we're playing with pitch, we're playing with improvization within that movement. And the most fun thing is that it's different every night. So it's always, like, a really fun surprise for us, what comes out.

Alan McLellan Oh, that's lovely. It's a fantastic concert, and I think Bach would have loved it.

Emi Ferguson We think so, too. [all chuckle] We hope so.

Alan McLellan Emi Ferguson and Clay Zeller-Townsend, thank you so much for your time. And what a wonderful concert.

Emi Ferguson Thank you so much.

Clay Zeller-Townson Thank you, Alan.