Violinist Blake Pouliot talks about touring with the Canada-EU youth orchestra super group, and what his experience with the National Youth Orchestra (NYO) means to him today.
“I’ve been very fortunate, and I’ve had a lot of success.”
It’s a bit of an understatement for Canadian violinist Blake Pouliot. In the 2019/2020 season, he’s making his debuts with the Atlanta, Asheville, Sarasota and Madison symphonies. His debut album Ravel, Debussy: Sonates on the Analekta label garnered a five-star rating from BBC Music Magazine and was nominated for a 2019 Juno Award for Best Classical Album.
“It’s been very busy — lots of work, lots of travel.”
In November, that travel brings him back home to Toronto to kick off the four-city Frenergy Tour, a first-ever collaboration between Canada’s National Youth Orchestra (NYO Canada) and the European Union Youth Orchestra (EUYO), under the baton of Viennese conductor Sascha Goetzel.
From November 12 to 17, the mass orchestra will hit Toronto’s Koerner Hall, then Kingston and Montreal, winding up, appropriately, at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. The tour was facilitated by the European Union Delegation to Canada, an organization that has fostered ties between Canada and the EU since 1976.
Organizers were looking for an NYO alumnus to take on the role of soloist. “I got a phone call,” Blake recalls, and it was his time with the NYO that persuaded him. “I was in the NYO in the summers of 2012 and 2013.” In fact, Pouliot won the Michael Measures Prixe in 2013, and became concertmaster of the NYO during his second year.
The idea of playing with the dual youth orchestras appealed to him. “It’s really fun,” he says. “It’s always special to have youth groups combined.” Pouliot is based in Los Angeles these days, but still has strong ties to Toronto and the region, and welcomed the chance to come back and play while he visited. “I’m really excited by it.”
It’s not the first time Pouliot has gone on a similar tour. After netting the Grand Prize at the 2016 Orchestre symphonique de Montréal Manulife Competition, he toured through the summer of 2017 as a soloist with the YOA Orchestra of the Americas.
Blake has been playing with orchestras since the age of 11, and has worked with many of the world’s leading conductors, including Sir Neville Marriner, Pablo Heras Casado, David Danzmyer, Vasily Petrenko, and Hugh Wolff. Now 25, Pouliot’s memories of his time with the NYO are fresh and fond.
“It was life changing in many different ways,” he says. During the training period, and on tour, the young musicians live and work together, an experience he remembers as both eye-opening and seminal. As he points out, the tuition is free (by audition), and the student musicians are also paid for their efforts. “Now, later in life, it’s become one of my most cherished memories,” he says. “It was a beautiful, nurturing environment. What an opportunity.”
Life on tour as a soloist playing with different orchestras, all over the world, can be lonely and somewhat alienating. Yet, wherever he is, he seems to run into other NYO alumni — most recently in Edmonton on tour. “I have friends in the Montreal Symphony, in the Toronto Symphony,” he says. “It’s really comforting.” He says he also appreciates the level of support he got in the early days of his career, now that he’s based in the US.
Blake plays the 1729 Guarneri del Gesù violin, on loan from the Canada Council for the Arts Musical Instrument Bank, and says the repertoire was proposed to him, focusing on two show pieces for his solo performance. “I think they wanted to keep the show light.” Rehearsal will happen over one or two days just before the tour begins.
Blake will be playing Saint-Saëns’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso in A minor, Op. 28 and Ravel’s Tzigane for Violin and Orchestra. The program will also include Wagner’s Overture to Tannhäuser (Paris Version), Rossini’s Overture to William Tell, and the Suite from The Firebird (1945 revision) by Stravinsky. The namesake of the concert series is Canadian composer John Estacio’s Frenergy for orchestra, a piece that celebrates friendship and high energy.
Leading up to the Canadian tour, NYO violinists Teresa Wang and Cassandra Leshchyshyn went on tour with the EUYO over the summer. Likewise, Austrian violinist Janela Nini, and Spanish violinist Patricia Francia and cellist Gema Pérez Oliver trained with the NYO over the summer, and then went on tour in Canada and Spain.
The EUYO has existed for more than four decades as a cultural ambassador for the European continent, with a reputation for excellence. Canada’s NYO has been an incubator for many of the country’s finest classical musicians, with about a third of Canada’s orchestra seats taken up by alumni. Every summer, about 100 music students between the ages of 16 and 28 participate in the NYO summer training institute, culminating in a cross-country tour and recording session.
The Frenergy Tour plays Toronto’s Koerner Hall on November 12, the Isabel Bader Centre in Kingston on November 13, the Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal on November 14, and the National Arts Centre in Ottawa on November 17. Details here.