Can you imagine if Lana Del Ray and Kanye West had sung at the court of the Sun King? It’s not as strange as you may think, as English flutist Emi Ferguson, professor at the Juilliard School of Music in New York, is giving 17th-century baroque music a second lease of life.
Emi Ferguson spend her childhood summers in a village in the Provence countryside in France, but it was an encounter with an American from New York State that inspired her career as a Francophile flutist. The young Englishwoman was studying at the Juilliard School of Music in 2009 when she applied for the new Historical Performance Master of Music degree. The tryouts were conducted by William Christie, a pioneer in historical music and baroque repertoire, and the founder of Les Arts Florissants ensemble. He accepted the 22-year-old flutist’s application, and presented her with her first period instrument.
The flute crafted in ebony with ivory rings was the exact replica of an 18th-century Palanca model, and immediately captivated the young musician. While she had been mostly interested in modern and jazz music, Emi Ferguson quickly turned to baroque. She began performing with the Juilliard orchestra, and after graduating she was invited to play with Les Arts Florissants at the summer festival organized every year by William Christie at his home in the Vendée region of France.
“Pop Singers at the Court of Louis XIV”
Emi Ferguson’s first album, Amour Cruel, was released last September, and offers a youthful new showcase for airs de cour. This genre of music developed during the 17th century under the influence of Louis XIV and composer Jean-Baptiste Lully, before fading from memory. “I rewrote the lyrics and harmonies imagining the king had invited pop singers to Versailles,” she says.
Delving into the archives at the Juilliard library, Emi Ferguson uncovered songs composed 400 years ago. While searching through a “dusty old book” she discovered a famous 1545 poem by Ronsard set to music during the 16th century, and transformed it into “Mignonne,” the second track on the album. Lyrics in two songs are “loosely translated” into English, while the others are sung in French. And in an effort to correctly place her voice, the musician sought advice from American Thomas Grubb, a French diction coach and Renaissance song specialist.
Billboard magazine put Amour Cruel in 17th place in its Top Classical Albums Chart. “It’s an honor,” says Emi Ferguson, although she admits that baroque music remains “niche.” But while opera still attracts more students than Renaissance music, the Francophile flutists is set on continuing her work. She will be performing at the Manderley Bar in New York on November 9, then in Montreuil, north-east of Paris, on November 20.