NAC Gala: Stringing along with rising violin star Blake Pouliot

Blake Pouliot is one of the young Canadian lions of the violin. The grand prize winner of the 2016 Orchestra Symphonique de Montréal (OSM) Manulife Competition, Pouliot has been drawing positive attention for the past few years. He will make an appearance at this year’s NAC Gala on the same bill as the legendary Diana Ross. Before the appearance, Pouliot answered some questions from ARTSFILE.

Q. Let’s start at the start. Where does music begin for you?

A. With my parents: I was born and raised in uptown Toronto. My parents still live in the house I was raised in. My dad was the producer for the Tommy Hunter Show and my mom was a singer on the show. So, since I was in the womb, the house was filled with music. I officially started studying music when I was five on piano. I asked my parents for almost two years if they would buy me a violin, but as an ambitious child they thought it was yet another small interest I had. At seven, they bought me my first violin. I think today we can say it’s become  more than a “small interest.” You could almost say music chose me, it’s just in my blood.

Q. Your first solo performance in public was at age 11. What did you play? What do you remember of the experience?

A. My first solo performance with orchestra was playing the Accolay violin concerto with the Toronto Sinfonietta. I remember how proud and happy my parents were, but I didn’t think it was a big deal. I think I just had fun.

Q. Music education is part of any performer’s background. Who were your teachers? What did they do for you?

A. I studied at the Royal Conservatory of Music. At 11, I was accepted into the Young Artist Performance Academy (now called the Taylor Academy) where I studied with my first teacher Marie Berard of the Canadian Opera Company. Later in high school I switched to studying with Erika Raum. I value my years of study with both of those women very much. They gave me an outstanding foundation of musical appreciation and concepts for developing phrases that I use to this day.

I stayed at the Royal Conservatory in the academy through high school. I then ended up going the Colburn Conservatory in Los Angeles. It was there that I met Robert Lipsett, who is still my teacher and my mentor. 

Q. Did you take part in the Young Artist Program at the NAC? 

A. I took part of the YAP program in 2009 and it was fantastic … life changing actually. It was one of the moments of my adolescence when I really thought I could pursue a career as a violinist. I was surrounded for three weeks by a group of talented and disciplined kids, and their dedication and calibre pushed me that summer. That peer motivation helped me find the joy of practicing and the desire to work really hard.

Q. Tell me about the kinds of music you like to perform and why you prefer these composers?

A. I enjoy pretty much all music from all eras. I’m just as inspired to hear something one day by Monteverdi as I may be the next day to hear something by Saariaho. I personally think my strengths are best demonstrated in 20th century music. I tend to have a stronger innate understanding of composers like Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Bartók, Janacek, and Debussy. I can’t necessarily explain why, but everyone has preferences.

I enjoy performing contemporary music. I’ve actually commissioned a friend of mine to write an encore for me. I like to program it in small doses and hope that a little bit of exposure over time will help it reach a wider audience.

Q. How much time to do you spend practicing every day? 

A. I can practice anywhere from three to eight hours a day. It really depends on how much music I have to learn, how many concerts I have coming up or how unprepared I feel. If I’ve been traveling and performing the same piece for a few weeks, I won’t be working more than a few hours a day. Any extra time would be excessive and might make me paranoid about my preparation. In the past two weeks, however, I’ve played two different recital programs and the Brahms violin concerto, so I’ve been doing a lot more daily practicing with so many different pieces to learn. 

Sometimes over practice can be taxing and make you second-guess yourself. Also it can cause injuries which I experienced once in 2015 while over practicing for a performance of the Mendelssohn violin concerto. So being conscious of your body, mind and developing an ability to practice mentally are not only essential to avoid injuries, but also a way to practice with maximum efficiency.

Q. There is another side of your artistry… that’s your work in film and TV. Tell me a bit about that.

A. My brief encounter with acting is something I had an interest in primarily as a kid. My father was a TV producer,  my mom a singer and my brother now a director and producer of commercials, I think I naturally fell towards acting. I did a few independent films, was on a couple shows like Warehouse 13 and Flashpoint, but I was actually most interested in improv theatre. Loving shows like SNL, In Living Color and MadTV, I took many classes at Second City in Toronto and totally thrived in the world of improv. But it always felt like more of a hobby, never something that I felt I could pursue as a vocation. But I cherish that ability to think on the spot and react to spontaneous changes. It’s helped immensely in interviews, events where I need to speak on the spot and in creating the ability to get in front of thousands of people and perform without becoming frozen with fear.

The fact that I live in Los Angeles and have a background in acting is pure coincidence. I’m a Canadian at heart, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy the winter. (Also) I just graduated from Colborn and I love the city.

Acting has come in handy when I’ve been asked by orchestras to do narrations for young people’s concerts, and I think people trust my ability to speak in front of crowds, but it’s definitely not on my mind at the moment or something I wish to continue to pursue. Perhaps if an opportunity presented itself at the right time I’d take it, but the violin is my main focus.

Q. You held a Guarneri from the Canada Council’s Music Instrument Bank for the past three years. Have you got it back again?

A. Yes I do still play on the Guarneri from the Canada Council. I couldn’t respond to that question until (this past week) because that’s when it was publicly announced. But I was very fortunate to be the first laureate of the violin competition again, and with no question I took back the Guarneri. I have developed a very emotional rapport with this instrument and truly feel it has become an extension of my voice. With this instrument alone I was fortunate enough to be the grand prize winner of the Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal’s Manuvie competition, release my debut album and sign with professional management. I owe a tremendous amount of my success to the use of the instrument, and I’m ecstatic that I get the chance to use it for another three years.

Q. You are playing a piece at the NAC Gala that I don’t know much about. Can you talk about the piece?

A. I’ll be performing Zigeneurweisen or Gypsy Airs by Pablo de Sarasate. It’s basically the violin world’s equivalent of Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen. Although I would say that while Queen is met with nostalgia and emphatic adoration, the Sarasate is met with more anguish by violinists. It’s very difficult and we all dabble with it as kids because it’s so impressive to hear and watch for the first time. But because of its popularity, it’s hard to do well. It was asked of me to perform it at this NAC Gala. It’s a great crowd pleaser, and very virtuosic and I’m looking forward to playing it. I never learned it before, so it’ll be my first time.

I do have other recordings in the works with lots of exciting repertoire and multiple discs. But that’s all I can disclose. I have to build up the anticipation.

Q. What’s next? 

A. In the classical world, concert seasons are programmed years in advance. I am in the midst of finalizing concerts from July 2019 to June 2020, and just last week I was discussing dates in the spring of 2021. In a matter of months I’ll be able to tell you exactly where I’ll be in a few years; What city, what day, what time, and what pieces I’ll be performing. It’s a very unique career because you’re constantly thinking into the future, and scheduling your future sometimes way before you are even close to processing it. But now that I’m at a point where I have a little bit more stability and I have clarity over what I’m doing in the next few years, I’m actually looking forward to having a more day to day present state of mind and having smaller goals to reach in shorter periods of time. I would like to improve my French skills and learn another language, I would like to be reading more philosophy and political science and improving my baking skills as I’m a good cook but a terrible baker.

If you want to know musically and artistically where I hope to be in a few years, definitely performing still. I want to continue to be an artist who displays lots of vulnerability and accessibility in order to reach as many people as possible. But in terms of exactly where I see myself, I have no idea. How I feel in this moment could change two months from now. All I know is that I’m very happy in my personal life, and I’m extremely grateful for the opportunities I have, and to those who are aiding me in getting those opportunities. I can definitely tell you where I’ll be very soon, and that’s at my apartment, in my bed sleeping, and it’s something I’m very much looking forward to after being on the road the past couple weeks.

NAC Gala 
Where: Southam Hall
When: Oct. 3 at 7 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.