Violinist Blake Pouliot Returns for Paganini Concerto

David Lewellen

Tagged Under: 2022.23 Season, Guest Artist

The last time Blake Pouliot played with the Milwaukee Symphony, in February 2019, the concert was in Uihlein Hall, the MSO was between music directors, and subzero temperatures prompted warnings to stay inside at all times.

But on Oct. 21-22, he will play at the Bradley Symphony Center, at the peak of fall foliage, in his first performance ever of the notoriously difficult Paganini violin concerto.

Niccolo Paganini, the great Italian virtuoso of the 19th century, wrote the concerto as a showpiece for himself. “People expect it to be virtuosic already,” Pouliot says, “but you have to bring something else to it and accentuate the melodies and the internal things that Paganini wrote. It’s quite a sweet piece for people to appreciate, and it’s super accessible.”

He has always wanted to perform the piece, and the impetus came from the MSO’s programming process. Guest conductor Jader Bignamini requested to lead the Paganini as part of his program, and the MSO approached Pouliot about returning to play it. Conductor and soloist have not worked together before, but Pouliot said, “I’m excited to collaborate with Jader. We’ll only have about 20 minutes together before the rehearsal, but we’ll get a sense of each other. We’re going to spend so much time together that week, we might as well make it enjoyable.”

Having spent months learning the concerto, Pouliot says, “It lives up to everything that’s been said about it. It’s hard as hell.”

There’s also a visual element, as the audience watches the physical demands upon the performer and the instrument. And that’s part of the live experience that even a perfect recording wouldn’t capture. “When you go to Lady Gaga or the Stones or Celine Dion, what’s the point of just hearing the album version?” Pouliot asked. “People want to see the artist and connect with the artist. And Paganini knew that. It’s designed not just for aural interest but for visual interest.”

On Pouliot’s previous appearance in Milwaukee, he performed another aural-visual showpiece, the Bruch “Scottish Fantasy.” Writing in the Journal Sentinel, Elaine Schmidt said that he “played with a completely captivating mix of musical fervor, some blindingly fast technical passages, simply stated traditional folk tunes, and a completely disarming grin that popped up in the middle of musical pyrotechnics.”

Paganini died in 1840, long before the era of sound recording, but the tradition of violin performance in the 20th and 21st centuries has been shaped by records. “You listen to the way that Mozart and Bach are performed in different eras and they’re worlds apart,” Pouliot said. “There aren’t as many things up for debate in Paganini. In many places there’s only one way to play it, because your hands can only stretch a certain way.”

Pouliot is an enthusiastic consumer of many genres of music, including Broadway musicals, pop, and alt-rock. But he has no ambition to sit in with an indie band on violin. “My strongest desire has always been for classical music,” he says, in the broadest sense from the Baroque period to 21st-century electronics. “But at the end of the day, it’s still entertainment. We’re conveying emotion through sound.” And going to concerts of other genres “helps me gain an understanding of how pieces affect people.”

After the weekend of concerts in Milwaukee, Pouliot will fly directly to Paris for a recital, and then immediately back to his home base in Southern California for another recital. Will that be hard? “I’m trying not to think about it,” he says. But it’s just an extreme example of a week in the life of a classical soloist. “Being adaptable is essential,” he says, “because there are so many things that are out of your control. I’ve learned to sleep when I have to.  This is a job, and all jobs have their perks and their tedium.”

But he found an unusual way to deal with tedium during the quarantine phase of the pandemic. “I took up Olympic weightlifting,” he says. “I was always intrigued to see guys who were like 5-foot-4 lifting 350 pounds over their heads.” Since he could work at an outdoor gym in Los Angeles, “I really got into fitness, and I could take out all my aggression and frustration. It had been years since I took more than 14 days off the violin, and I wanted to do something different. I may never get that opportunity again.”