Wineke: Young violinist takes Madison by storm

Kenneth Woods and Blake Pouiliot

MADISON, Wis. — It takes a certain amount of artistic courage to be the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s featured violin soloist three weeks after the legendary Pinchas Zukerman took the stage.

Zukerman has enjoyed world fame for far longer than 25-year-old Blake Pouliot has been alive.

With that introduction you can pretty much guess that Pouliot figuratively blew the roof off Overture Hall with weekend concerts featuring Mendelssohn’s “Concerto in E minor for Violin and Orchestra.”

Pouliot didn’t just get a standing ovation, the audience cheered him like a rock star. I’ve been attending these MSO concerts for more than 30 years and I don’t recall hearing that much cheering.

Part of it is that he is a showman who, in style, resembles another young musician, MSO organist Greg Zelek. In fact, if the two of them ever staged a joint concert they would probably sell out as many performances as they were willing to deliver.

Most of the reason for Pouliot’s reception is that he is a superb musician who can take his 1729 Guarneri violin and bring forth its full potential (the violin is on loan from the Canadian Council for the Arts). There’s just a sweet sound that comes from those violins and Pouliot caught it.

The program began with Haydn’s “Miracle” Symphony. Haydn is something like comfort food for the ear and, given the stress of the current period, it was a welcome start to the concert.

The “miracle,” by the way came because a chandelier crashed to the floor after a Haydn symphony – though program notes artist J. Michael Allsen notes that the symphony in question wasn’t this one.

The program concluded with “A Hero’s Life,” a tone poem composed by Richard Strauss in 1898.

I thought it was a nice piece of music. My wife, Jackie, not only liked it, she said it was one of the best performances she ever heard, would be willing to go right back in the auditorium to hear it again and raved about it most of the way home. Several other patrons we spoke to on the way out of the concert hall expressed similar opinions.

The guest conductor for the weekend concerts was Kenneth Woods, artistic director and principal conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, who took easy command of the Madison Symphony and seemed to have direct nonverbal communication with each player, all of which also contributed to a satisfying evening of music.

Woods, a Madison native with an international reputation, holds a Master’s degree from the UW-Madison and is a former cellist with the MSO and the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra.