Blake Pouliot drops his debut album, wins $20K prize

Blake Pouliot
CBC Music

By Robert Rowat

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]"

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."

Read the full story and listen to an excerpt here.