Sea & Sky chamber music trio: Clarinettist François Houle, pianist Jane Hayes and violinist Joan Blackman performed in Tofino as part of the West Coast Winter Music series. (Photo courtesy of Sea & Sky)

Sea & Sky improvises on classical chamber music in Tofino

Musicians face off in dynamic onstage duel.


Special to the Westerly

Imagine a dynamic onstage duel as clarinettist François Houle and violinist Joan Blackman face off, putting the full force of their entire bodies and passion behind this musical re-enactment of Igor’s Stravinsky’s Faustian tale, “L’histoire du soldat”.

With scene-stealing interjections from pianist Jane Hayes, this is chamber trio Sea & Sky’s update with a contemporary Vancouver twist. In his preamble, Houle recounts the narrative re-interpreted by CBC’s Bill Richardson, who guest-starred with them during a previous performance for Vetta Chamber Music Society in Vancouver.

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Richardson described this deal between the devil and blind Archie the busker as unfolding downtown at Robson and Burrard Streets with the devil inhabiting a mannequin in a red bustier in a Victoria’s Secret display window. The only witness to this supernatural transaction: blind Archie’s dog who sniffs out the deception. A playful nod to this suite’s theatricality is inherent in the blur of Blackman’s red blouse as the bow flies across her violin.

This musical storytelling and technical innovation is signature to Saturday evening’s performance in the “intimate” black box theatre at Clayoquot Sound Community Theatre in Tofino. This is the second show in this year’s West Coast Winter Music series, which brings world-class music to our doorstep.

READ MORE: Soulful session kicks off Winter Music Series in Tofino

With a program that includes work from composers Aram Khachaturian, Paul Schoenfeld and Canadian Patrick Cardy, the theme, Houle explains, relies on the mathematics of dance, with each piece connecting to a particular dance tradition from klezmer to Argentinian tango to middle-eastern dance and with the whole program transporting you into all these different worlds.

For Houle, who, as both a soloist and chamber musician, has enjoyed “a steady diet of traveling and touring in amazing places,” it’s exciting to bring a repertoire that is for the most part new and a little “off the beaten path” to such a knowledgeable audience who, thanks to the long-running winter music series, are ready for it and will embrace it.

Described by the LA Times as a “spectacularly versatile clarinettist who appears to have no limitations stylistically or sonically,” multiple Juno-nominated Houle embraced that versatility early.

He learned to play around age 7 in 1960s Montreal during the heyday of clarinettists Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Woody Herman and later met Goodman while completing his Master’s degree at Yale University. He says he has discovered “a whole unique language in my instrument” and alternate path—to traditional symphony orchestra—to develop his unique voice.

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Sea & Sky expanded from their original duo after Blackman, Vetta’s artistic director, invited them to perform and having that extra voice offers new opportunities to explore as illustrated by Stravinsky’s suite.

“When you attend any of our winter shows, you either discover an artist that becomes someone you then immediately add to your YouTube playlist, or you discover a side of a favourite composer you never knew,” says volunteer Anna Sabramowicz, who MC’d.

“In this case, I can attest that both happened…I love the way the Sea & Sky trio weaved their perspectives and collaboration experience into the performance and engaged with the audience in such a fun way. Fantastic dynamic.”

West Coast Winter Music’s upcoming program is available on Facebook:

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