Steeped in gospel, Jonathan Rush believes it’s ‘110% OK to be myself’

Jonathan Rush leads members of the Chicago Sinfonietta in a concert at Orchestra Hall.

Ocken Photography

When the COVID-19 crisis began, conductor Jonathan Rush recalls he "was sitting at home, doing nothing at all." With concerts canceled into the near future, Rush worried that he "wouldn't have a career … I didn’t know how the pandemic would turn out."

Fortunately, he had completed a widely praised guest conducting stint at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra just weeks before the COVID lockdown. A few months later, BSO management, including music director Marin Alsop, asked him to join the orchestra as its assistant conductor. "So then I went from no conducting to conducting every single week," he said in an interview with Boston's WBUR-FM (to listen, click on the tab below).

Rush will join Alsop for a program titled "Celebrating Hidden American Triumphs" on July 10 at the Ravinia Festival. They will conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in works by American composers, including the Midwest premiere of Chicago-based composer Stacy Garrop's The Battle for the Ballot, a tribute to the suffrage movement and the passage of the 19th Amendment.

Rush will lead a work Carlos Simon, Fate Now Conquers. Alsop, whom he considers a mentor, will conduct the rest of the program.

Alsop, Ravinia's chief conductor and curator, told him "it's 110 percent OK to be myself," he said. "Marin never wanted cookie-cutter students," said Rush, 25, a 2018 Project Inclusion Conducting Fellow with the Chicago Sinfonietta (and since 2019, he also has served as an assistant conductor there). "She wants Jonathan to be Jonathan."

A graduate of the Peabody Conservatory, Rush grew up steeped in gospel and other roots-based genres. "What I bring is something so different," he said. "My foundation was gospel. I'm not just going to bring classical, I'm going to bring soul ... the whole music world that makes up Jonathan Rush. People my age, we have something to offer, and it’s completely different.”