Walter Boudreau began piano lessons at age five, and took up the saxophone at 13 by chance. Born in Montreal in the late-1940s and raised about an hour away in Sorel, he had wanted to play snare drum in the school band. But the snare was a popular choice, so he settled for the sax instead. Turns out he had a talent, and while he continued his serious classical music studies, he also played in a rock band and by 18 was leading his own jazz quartet.
"It opened up my horizons … and it gave me a very sound understanding of the power of music," recalls Boudreau, a prolific composer and artistic director of the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec since 1988. "Because when you're playing … and you see all these couples French kissing in front of you, this is when you're confronted with the power of music."
In 1968, Boudreau collaborated with poet Raôul Duguay and founded L'Infonie, a multigenre, multimedia collective that incorporated Boudreau's interests in everything from jazz to classical to heavy rock. "I was kind of a melting pot of all these influences," he says, calling L'Infonie Quebec's answer to the Mothers of Invention. He has composed more than 65 works, and is the director of the Montreal/New Music festival. "This has been my crusade for the past 27 years: to bring contemporary music within our social culture as we do with theatre, with cinema, with dance, with poetry, with literature, what have you."
That crusade has earned Boudreau, 67, one of the seven Governor-General's Performing Arts Awards that were announced on Thursday. He will take home one of five Lifetime Artistic Achievement Awards at a ceremony May 30 in Ottawa; the others are Atom Egoyan, Sarah McLachlan, R.H. Thomson and Diana Leblanc. GGs will also go to filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club, Wild), who will receive the National Arts Centre Award, and philanthropist Michael Koerner, given the Ramon John Hnatyshyn Award for Voluntarism in the Performing Arts.
Egoyan, 54, the director of movies such as The Sweet Hereafter, Where the Truth Lies and most recently The Captive. His films have earned prizes at Cannes and nominations for Oscars, and he is also a director of opera; the Canadian Opera Company revived his production of Wagner's Die Walkure this season. His next film, Remember, is scheduled for release this year.
Singer-songwriter McLachlan, 47, has sold over 40-million albums, has won three Grammy Awards and nine Junos, and founded the all-female music festival Lilith Fair in 1997. McLachlan, who was born in Halifax and lives in West Vancouver, founded the Sarah McLachlan School of Music in Vancouver in 2003. Her most recent album, Shine On, was released last year.
Thomson is a prolific actor and veteran of Canadian film, television and stage. His interest was piqued at 16 while watching "a very mediocre" production of Hamlet with his high school, he recalls. When Hamlet returns, having heard of his father's death, and is reunited with Ophelia, there was a moment when Hamlet stops with the realization that she's gone mad. "It was a communication that lifted me out of my seat. At that moment I thought: 'They did that to me, I want to do that for other people,' " says Thomson, now 67.
He has done just that, with on-screen roles that include Jasper Dale on Road to Avonlea and Tom Hardwick in The Englishman's Boy, and a long list of theatre credits. They include The Lost Boys, based on letters from his five great-uncles who served in the First World War. After every performance, Thomson says audience members would approach him and tell him how the war had affected their families: "I realized that the play had triggered something … and what I heard was a gold mine." From that emerged The World Remembers, a five-year project naming the millions killed during that war in a number of countries, including Canada. "Those stories should be heard," he says. Starring this month in a production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at the Belfry Theatre in Victoria, Thomson, who lives in Toronto, is set to direct The Crucible at Theatre Calgary in the fall.
Theatre stalwart Leblanc was also reached in Victoria this week; she is currently directing a production of Madama Butterfly at Pacific Opera Victoria. Leblanc, who was born in Montreal, was part of the National Theatre School's first graduating class, and then went to Halifax where she was a member of the original Neptune Theatre company. "We were allowed to work from 10 in the morning until 10 at night for $67.50 a week," she recalls, "and I was in heaven."
Leblanc is also a former artistic director of Théâtre français de Toronto, and a founding member of the Soulpepper Theatre Company, also in Toronto, where she lives. Turning 72 on Friday, Leblanc remains a busy actor and director. She played Shakespeare's Juliet in Barrie, Ont., last year, in an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet set in a retirement home. After Victoria, she'll return to Toronto, where she has a small role in Soulpepper's The Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds and will then direct a new version of Michel Tremblay's Yours Forever, Marie-Lou. "And then I may never work again," she says. "It always feels like that."