BY BLAIR JACKSON | FROM THE SPRING 2018 ISSUE OF CLASSICAL GUITAR
Ontario, Canada–based guitarist Emma Rush has her share of international credentials. When she started playing classical guitar seriously, “I went to music festivals in Europe to try and soak up as much guitar as I could,” she says, and after becoming a regular at the Iserlohn festival in Germany, she went on to complete her graduate studies at the Hochschule für Musik in Detmold, Germany. She has played a four-city tour of China and a festival in Mexico. Her first album, Folklórica, contained classical pieces inspired by the traditional music of four continents. And in the summer of 2018, she’s returning to Germany to work on an album of music by women composers of the Romantic era (on her newly acquired Romantic guitar).
But Rush is first and foremost a proud Canadian. And even if perhaps she privately harbors dreams of someday playing a recital at stately Wigmore Hall in London or at the splendidly ornate Palau de la Música in Barcelona, she sounds like a person utterly content with her life in the here and now. You should hear her light up when she talks about her short spring 2017 tour of northeast Canada’s sparsely populated but ruggedly beautiful Maritime province of Nova Scotia, which took her to such venues as the Old School in Musquodoboit Harbour, the venerable King’s Theatre in Annapolis Royal, and the Osprey Arts Centre in Shelburne, where quaint clapboard houses line Water Street.
“I was playing all these small towns with quirky little theaters and town halls, and I just loved it!” she says. “I love taking classical music out of the concert halls and really connecting with people who maybe have not been exposed to it or had any interest in it before.”
Rush currently teaches guitar privately and at three different institutions in the Hamilton, Ontario, area (an hour southwest of Toronto), where she grew up and still lives: Mohawk College, Redeemer University College, and the Hamilton Conservatory for the Arts. Her most recent album also speaks to her roots. Canadiana is a warm and inviting album of solo guitar pieces by Canadian songwriters and composers, including two by Joni Mitchell, two by Gordon Lightfoot, one by Stan Rogers (a popular Hamilton-
born folk singer who died tragically in a plane crash in 1983), and one by classical guitarist and composer William Beauvais, whose four-part suite Appalachian Colours, dedicated to Rush, is the heart of the album.
“Canadiana was definitely a bit of a departure for me with that sort of pop-folk focus,” she says. “When I was coming up with the program for my first record, Folklórica, I looked to different concert programs [I’d done] and found a reoccuring theme of having pieces that drew their inspiration either from folk music or folk legends from around the world, and that sort of became the thread of the CD. So the Canadian material isn’t too far of a departure, though a lot of the tunes are not original folk music, but the ’60s folk-wave kind of music. It was neat to be able to put the program together that way and be able to tell a story with a different kind of music.”
The unsung hero of the album is Niagara, Ontario–based composer and arranger Floyd Turner, a friend of Rush’s who came up with the imaginative solo guitar arrangements of the Mitchell, Lightfoot, and Rogers tunes. Mitchell’s “Blue,” the piano-based title track of the singer-songwriter’s masterful 1971 album, is a great example of Turner’s artistry. “It’s a good reminder of how things that can be easily realized on a piano can be quite diffuicult on a fretboard,” Rush says with a chuckle. “What drew me to that piece was its intimacy. It’s just Joni Mitchell and the piano, and that sort of presentation lends itself to the guitar, which is such an intimate instrument for classical music. But it was a real challenge to take a piece like that and think about it in terms of guitar presentation.”
As for the Appalachian Colours suite, which originally appeared on William Beauvais’ fine 2016 album Old Wood—New Seeds, “I found that piece in my mailbox one day,” she says. “We hadn’t actually met at that point, but Beauvais had written to me and said he admired what I was doing and that he’d love to dedicate a piece to me one day. Sometime after that, the sheet music for that piece appeared in the mailbox; it was quite a nice surprise. It was this fresh and fun fingerstyle piece that was sort of outside of what I would normally be thinking of for my own programming, but it turns out it totally fit with this project. I’ve played that piece extensively touring in Canada, and it’s really an audience favorite.”
Atypically, Rush did not play the classical guitar until she was in college. “I had grown up playing other instruments—piano, cello, oboe,” she says, “but in high school I lost my focus, I guess you could say, and wasn’t very involved with the music program at that time, and wasn’t doing any private lessons anymore. After high school, I was working at a couple of jobs and trying to figure what I was going to go to school for and where I was going to go to school. I had some friends who were studying classical guitar at Mohawk College here in town, and I loved the sound of the instrument and instantly fell in love with it.
“I had tried playing some steel-stringed guitar and strumming some rock,” she adds, “but I wasn’t that great at it. But when I picked up the classical guitar, it made sense to me. I had played a lot of classical music, and I grew up in a home where we listened to classical music, so that kind of phrasing was already in my ear. And I could already read music, so I definitely had an advantage not starting from zero. Basically, I played a classical guitar once, bought one the next day, and went to university the year after. So it was a very sudden career decision.”
Rush enlisted a private teacher for a few months, then later “really jumped in” at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. “My teacher encounraged me to learn a broad spectrum of pieces, so I tried a lot of different kinds of music,” she says. “And from the beginning I played as much as possible. I had this feeling that because I got such a late start with the instrument I had a lot of catching up to do.” Among her teachers at Dalhousie was the excellent Canadian guitarist Dale Kavanagh, who is probably best known as being half of the world-renowned Amadeus Guitar Duo, with her German husband Thomas Kirchhoff. Kavanagh and Kirchhoff founded the International Guitar Symposium in Iserlohn in 1982, so that connection no doubt inspired Rush to go repeatedly to Iserlohn and to eventually earn her graduate degree at the Detmold Hochschule für Musik in Germany.
Today, besides teaching and “being on the road playing concerts quite a bit, which I love, I’ve also found that I love arts administration, so I started Guitar Hamilton, which presents a yearlong concert series,” as well as a festival. “I moved back to Hamilton in late 2007 and it was kind of a guitar desert, which I found depressing at first. But I embraced it as an opportunity to get something going and started the series [in 2009] to try and introduce the instrument to the audience here, and then the festival followed the next year.
“I just really love guitar festivals,” she continues. “I love the atmosphere of everyone coming together and playing music and listening to music and talking to each other. The model I followed was Thomas and Dale’s festival at Iserlohn, and what I loved about that was that there was no separation between performers and faculty and students; everybody was able to hang out together. It makes a difference if you can sit down and have a cup of coffee with David Russell or somebody like that. To be able to interact with people you respect so much is a pretty huge and inspiring thing when you’re a guitar student! Anyway, through the years we’ve had great audiences for both the series and the summer festival,” which takes place in early July at the lovely old Hamilton Conservatory for the Arts.
Somehow, Rush also manages to find time to play occasionally as one half of the Azuline Duo with flautist Sara Traficante, mostly playing repertoire from the 20th and 21st centuries. “We do a lot of our own arrangements that reimagine this repertoire,” she notes. “It has some percussion, vocalization; we work beyond our instruments to get all the different colors we can. It has an upbeat vibe and is designed to be fun and engaging.” The duo—which is named after a blue-green color said to have magical properties—put out their first album, Romanza: Music of Spain and South America, in the fall of 2016.
Next up for Rush, in February 2018, is a residency on Malcolm Island, off the coast of Vancouver, British Columbia, where she’ll prepare material for her next recording, which will feature early Canadian folk tunes. When I jokingly remark, “That’s pretty obscure,” she laughs, but replies, “I did a lot of soul-searching with Canadiana, wondering how it might be received and what people would think. Finally, I decided I didn’t care. I thought some people would like it, and they do. I don’t think there’s a problem with playing beautiful music on any instrument, period. No one has a problem with Matthew McAllister playing all those beautiful old Scottish tunes.”
Then, in the summer of 2019, it’s back to Germany for the project on women composers of the Romantic era, for which she has received a private grant. “I don’t know yet what I’m going to record for that—there are a lot of possibilities,” she says. “I want to see if I can find some different transcriptions and arrangements, and I’m also going to look beyond composed classical music, to popular song for instance.”
What Emma Rush Plays
Rush describes her main instrument as a “standard old-school guitar, made by [German luthier] Roland Scharbatke in 2005, which is when I bought it. It’s very, very elegant and it sounds wonderful. He pays so much attention to detail.” Scharbatke tells us the guitar has a solid cedar top, Indian rosewood back and sides, and fan bracing that has been “optimized.” The neck is Honduran mahogany and the headstock is acacia with ebony edging and David Rodgers machine heads with blackened string rollers, ebony buttons, and special brass side plates inlaid to the headstock.