You'd never guess from listening to violinist Blake Pouliot's debut album, Ravel - Debussy: Sonates, that he was living through "one of the craziest experiences" of his life during the recording sessions.
He and pianist Hsin-I Huang had rented a two-bedroom apartment north of Montreal, to be within driving distance of St-Augustin-de-Mirabel Church, where the album was recorded.
"The woman who rented it to us — her house doubled as a belly-dance studio," Pouliot told us recently. "Every day at 7 p.m., we'd have this Persian music blasting in the garage while she was teaching the dance moves. Not only that, but I think she was a hookah smoker, so the entire house reeked of shisha and tobacco," he continued.
"She advertised it as a two-bedroom, but it was one bedroom. The second bed was a massage chair that vibrated by itself. We ended up drinking two bottles of wine every night because we were exhausted! [Laughs]"
But judging by this excerpt, the Chardonnay and unsolicited massages worked wonders:
Blake Pouliot (violin) and Hsin-I Huang (piano)
The album, due out March 9 on Analekta Records, pairs Debussy's Violin Sonata with Ravel's Violin Sonata No. 2, along with the former's "Beau Soir" and the latter's popular Tzigane, for a satisfying, often serene listening experience.
"I love French music," says Pouliot. "It's definitely something that I'm very entranced by. I approach it in a very personal way."
Personality is never in short supply, it would seem. When we spoke with him during the recent Winter Olympic Games, we asked him if he could imagine himself in a bobsled. "I can imagine myself dying in a bobsled accident," he replied, laughing.
Pouliot's debut album is coming out, coincidentally, with the announcement that he is the recipient of the Women's Musical Club of Toronto's 2018 Career Development Award, presented every three years to an exceptional young performing artist. What does the $20,000 prize mean to Pouliot?
"I can pay rent! It's wonderful and very helpful," he enthuses, explaining how costs add up for artists setting out on a solo career. "Before every concert, I'm making sure my bow is re-haired, that I have new strings on my instrument, that my clothes are dry-cleaned. As well, I want to develop my own personal aesthetic, so I'm making sure that I'm buying custom-made clothing, doing research and finding unique pieces to wear and having them adjusted so they're comfortable to play in. All of this costs money. It's not like I'm making enough that I can just walk into Versace's office and say, 'Design me a suit!'"
The WMCT award comes 18 months after Pouliot's grand prize at the 2016 OSM Manulife Competition, which led to a concert tour of South America with the YOA Orchestra of the Americas playing Piazzolla's Four Seasons, and a performance of Korngold's Violin Concerto with the OSM in 2017.
"I like it because it's almost like champagne," he says of the Korngold concerto. "I find it very bubbly, exciting. The second movement is just to die for, it totally tears at your heartstrings. The first movement is notated moderato nobile and it really possesses this kind of noble and broad opening. Gah, I just love it."
Back in 2013, Pouliot won the Canada Council's Michael Measures Prize and played Sibelius's Violin Concerto on tour with the National Youth Orchestra of Canada. "I got to work with Alain Trudel, who's one of my favourite people ever. I've known him for most of my life and I think he's outstanding as a musician and conductor, and I got to play this concerto five times with him," he says.
It also gave Pouliot a taste of life as a touring soloist. "We'd be on a bus for, like, nine hours and I'd be sleeping on the floor of the bus. And we landed in Vancouver, just to get off the bus, eat dinner, and it's 8 p.m., and I'd have to get out my violin to get ready for the next show. It was very difficult. But it was also incredibly rewarding."
'Mom, you're singing it wrong'
Pouliot was born and raised in Toronto. His father was the producer of The Tommy Hunter Show on CBC-TV; his mother was a pageant winner and singer on various TV programs, so music filled the family home.
"I basically grew up listening to the Carpenters and ABBA in the car all the time, which was wonderful, I'm not complaining," he recalls. "[Mom] would play stuff in the car and then we would come into the house and my mom would continue to sing the song, and I would be like, 'Mom, you're singing it wrong.' I think I was about three. And she was like, 'No, I'm not. I used to sing this on television and I know I'm singing it right.' And they later realized that what I was trying to tell them was, 'You're not singing it in the right key,' and that's how they realized I had perfect pitch. And so they said maybe this kid wants to do music."
His parents then enrolled him in piano lessons and eventually took him to a Toronto Symphony concert. "I don't remember what they played, but I turned to [my parents] and said, 'The violin is the best thing I've ever heard.'" Pouliot nagged his parents for violin lessons for over a year, and they eventually caved when he was seven.
He advanced quickly on the instrument, entering the Royal Conservatory of Music's Young Artists Performance Academy (now the Phil and Eli Taylor Performance Academy) at age 11.
'I've always been a very gregarious person'
"I don't think I worked very hard," Pouliot admits now, pointing out that his focus on music did not isolate him from his classmates. "I think I coasted on talent for a lot of my youth, which I actually regret. But I was always the king of the social ladder — definitely not an anti-social kid. I've always been a very gregarious person."
From the Royal Conservatory, Pouliot moved to Los Angeles at 18 to continue his studies with Robert Lipsett at the Colburn School. "My teacher was so demanding and the calibre of Colburn — the level the other students — was so phenomenal that I wanted to rise to the occasion and stand out." He completed his performance diploma in 2016 and will graduate with a professional studies certificate later this spring.
Upon graduation, Pouliot will stay in L.A. and work with his management (Opus 3 Artists) on building his career as a soloist, "so that when I'm onstage, I'm definitely giving you a full-on, completed image of who I am as a person, my individuality. As well, my violin is going to sound the best it can, so I'm giving back to the audience everything that they're putting in to come see me."
Audiences in Canada can catch Pouliot at two upcoming performances. He plays Beethoven's Romances with the Toronto Symphony on April 14 and 15, and Vivaldi's Four Seasons with the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa on April 21 and 23.
Pouliot and Huang's new album, Ravel - Debussy: Sonates, comes out on March 9. Order it here.
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