Chamberfest: Violinist Blake Pouliot is charting his own path

Blake Pouliot. Jeff Fasano Photography

Blake Pouliot has the title of punk legend Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids tattooed on his chest. He’s a huge fan of Smith and he loves the book too.

He has other tattoos and none of them are on obvious display. They are personal reminders of something significant. Many are from books he has read such as John Steinbeck’s East of Eden and Goethe’s Faust. He’s also got one of a light bulb that he says he got on a whim at 3 a.m. in Greenwich Village. Does he regret it? Not a bit. It’s a memory of a trip to New York when he was 19.

The 25 year old Canadian, though, is much more than the sum of his tattoos. He’s a significant violin virtuoso and he’ll be in Ottawa performing in a Chamberfest concert at the National Gallery of Canada on Feb. 25.

He’ll be playing with pianist Hsin-I Huang, who has been his regular recital partner for the past six years.

The relationship began at a festival put on by the concertmaster of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, David Halen.

“When I was a freshman in college, my teacher Robert Lipsett was on faculty at this festival. He asked a few students to be guest artists at the festival.” It was a great way to work on performance practice and a chance to try out new repertoire in a safe environment, Pouliot said.

Hsin-I Huang

“In the first concert I was playing a couple of show pieces. The day before, the pianist for the event cancelled.”

Someone mentioned a pianist in Los Angeles. She was called last minute and a day later Hsin-I Huang was in St. Louis with no idea of what she was to play.

Pouliot met her, rehearsed and performed Round of the Goblins by Bazzini, Vocalese by Rachmaninoff and then the Carmen Fantasy by Sarasate.

“She was so good we ended up working together for the entire festival and ever since.”

The relationship between violinist and pianist is an important one.

“Being a collaborative pianist is very difficult and it requires a specific attention to detail and constant navigation between an accompanying role and a major solo role. It’s not just me playing my part and she playing hers. It is an even balance.” It tales a specific mindset to do it well, he said.

“When you develop that rapport with someone you nurture and keep it because” it’s a rare and “delightful” mix of voice and artistry.

The two are at the point, he said, where they don’t even look at each other any more for cues, they are in such synch. Now they just anticipate each other.

“That’s what collaboration is. It’s not one person over the other; it’s a duet, a partnership.” He credits his success in the recital network to Hsin-I Huang.

In a sense you are more alone with an orchestra, he said, and that means the relationship with the conductor is crucial. If it’s not good, it’s really uncomfortable.

“I have had instances when I have played concertos with conductors and we don’t really mesh … and it can just feel almost like fighting. I find it harder a lot of times to play with orchestras because of that.

“I do try to interpret (a concerto with orchestra) like chamber music … but the nature of it means there is a spotlight on the soloist.

“I enjoy recitals. I find these performances so much more intimate. And you also have so much more control over everything.”

The solo side can be lonely. “It’s hard to be on the road bouncing around cities.”

Pouliot is not shy about expressing his feeling and beliefs about the BS of the business.

“There is a lot of politics and a lot of formality that goes into this industry. A lot of classical music and the vocation of the soloist has an anachronistic and bourgeois traditionalism behind it.

“When you go somewhere you have to charm the administration, you have to get along with the conductor, you have to win over the orchestra and you have to charm the donors.

“When you are constantly on the road you have to have all that in mind.” Performance isn’t just on stage it’s behind the curtain too, he said.

It helps that he has also had a career in Hollywood on TV series. The classical music world is certainly more civilized than that.

While it cane be tiring, he says he has learned how to handle it all with equanimity ad good humour, he said. Being with a collaborative artist then is a relief because you have someone with whom to share these pressures.

This year Pouliot and Huang have 10 recitals together, next year they have none.

In Ottawa, he’s playing a program that he built featuring works by Mozart, Janáček,  Beethoven, Kreisler, Prokofiev and concluding with Ravel’s Tzigane.

The program is thematically connected and also built to display his virtuosity.

“Over time the concept of the recital has changed so much. If you think to the 1940s and 50s, something that was new was solo Bach. They were constantly playing show pieces and examples of virtuosity that were really key in grabbing the audience’s attention. A lot of people want to see that.”

By the millennium, putting sonatas in recitals became the vogue, he said. That kind of program is fine for Carnegie Hall but for audiences elsewhere, that kind of a performance is a no go, he believes.

He knows that none of his 25 year old friends would go to a show like that. “It can be as boring as hell. When you are programming something, in my opinion, you should be appealing to everyone from dedicated classical music fans to those who have never been to a concert before.”

If someone shows up who is more used to EDM and dub-step, the music they would enjoy is something rhythmic and virtuosic.

It’s important, Pouliot said, to have music that includes everyone in the audience. It’s also important to include music that he likes and that Huang likes. That makes for a better performance.

He believes a lot of program presenters fail to offer this kind of useful variety and stick to the tried and true and play it safe.

Pouliot says he thinks of a recital program as a meal. In this supper, Mozart is an appetizer or an amuse-bouche. It’s easy on the palate. The Janáček and Beethoven pieces are a bit heavier. Kreisler is another appetizer. The entree is the Prokofiev and the final piece by Ravel is dessert.

His training leads him to “want the entire evening to be an experience.” It is also an array of styles. He’s also practical about the music he plays and where he is playing it.

When he’s off the clock, Pouliot says he doesn’t listen to much classical music. It’s not because he’s bored by it. Rather he said he’s very interested in other forms of music.

“In high school I was very into punk music. I also very much romanticized the idea of New York in the 1960s. And I was obsessed with Jefferson Airplane and Grace Slick. To me that stuff was so cool.”

But he also loved classical music because of its ability to invoke the emotions without words.

His pursuit of music has led him to commissioning and contemporary music.

That curiosity takes him into some interesting projects including one with Laurie Anderson, the legendary American avant-garde artist, composer, musician and film director. He was recommended to Anderson by another Canadian violin virtuoso, Lara St. John.

He was performing a piece she wrote in a gallery in the Chelsea district of Manhattan this past November.

In the lead up to the event, he worked with Anderson in her Lower West Side apartment that she shared with the late Lou Reed. The apartment was full of Reed’s stuff including a Grammy on display and stuff from the Velvet Underground. He asked Anderson about a photograph of her. She told him it was taken by Robert Mapplethorpe after a party at Andy Warhol’s place. “It was so surreal.” It was also an eye-opener.

“The biggest thing I took from working with Laurie Anderson is that music is art and it’s fun … relax. As simplistic as it sounds, it’s very easy (in classical music) to get lost in the void of perfectionism and practice.

“I don’t like limitations and I’m always optimistic about things that are new and exciting.”

Chamberfest presents Blake Pouliot and Hsin-I Huang
Where: National Gallery of Canada auditorium
When: Feb 25 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.