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Janelle Nadeau, the classical chameleon

Vancouver harpist and her Nadeau Ensemble incorporate medieval instruments into holiday favourites

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The common tendency is to put musicians in a box, to slap a label on them that makes it easier for us, the listener, to know what to expect after pressing play.

This is especially true for classical artists, who, drawing on literal centuries worth of tradition, aren't always seen as the high-minded musical innovators that their counterparts in other contemporary genres are. This is, of course, malarkey. From the minimalist leanings of Erik Satie and Philip Glass, to the technological wizardry of groups such as San Francisco's Elevate Ensemble, there has been no shortage of creative artists reimagining what classical music can be.

Somewhere in the nexus of tradition and innovation lies Vancouver harpist Janelle Nadeau, the 31-year-old founder of the Nadeau Ensemble, which will be playing a selection of holiday favourites at the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre this weekend.

A prolific tourer, Nadeau's chameleonic approach has seen her perform everywhere from jam-packed concert halls to bedside at palliative care homes, and with everyone from jazz crooner Diana Krall to hip-hop megastar Kanye West.

That adaptability can be traced back to Nadeau's formative years, when her music-obsessed parents exposed her to a smorgasbord of different genres and styles spanning the globe. Then, as a young artist breaking into the Vancouver classical scene, she got some advice from a Vancouver Opera concertmaster that has stuck with her through the years.

"He told me, 'If you want to have a career in this, the world has completely changed. You need to diversify how you play and you need to know how to do different things,'" Nadeau recalled. "I really took that to heart. So I started to play pop stuff, playing in different sizes of groups, different instrumentation. And then, you know how sometimes in your life you start to do something and then you think it will take you on this path, and then suddenly some other door opens that you never could have really imagined? That's what keeps happening to me. I feel really grateful for it."

One of those doors opened up when Nadeau was playing with a concert trio that regularly performed at palliative care centres. After the group disbanded, Nadeau kept up the tradition, and has now played at more than 300 hospitals and hospices.

"I can't tell you how many times I've walked out of concerts laughing, crying — there are so many varying experiences. But I get so much out of this. Every time I walk away, I feel so grateful for my life, I feel so grateful for my experiences, my family's help, the people I love. It just feels so human," she said. "We spend so much time on our phones and our computers and things like that. And I do it all the time. I'm always connected, I'm always writing an email, doing something. So, to me those experiences almost seem to weigh more because there's no barrier up with these people."

For this week's Whistler show, A Prairie Christmas, Nadeau joins Kim Robertson on pedal harp and Joaquin Ayala, who will be playing a collection of obscure instruments that date as far back as the 9th century. So if you've ever wondered what a nyckelharpa, a Swedish key harp; or a symphoni, a predecessor to the hurdy-gurdy, sound like ("almost like bagpipes"), now's your chance.

"(Ayala) is somehow able to figure these things out. He orders these instruments and learns them, and he's really dedicated that way," noted Nadeau. "We're very lucky to have Joaquin, he brings a different flavour to the group."

Even with all the experimentation, Nadeau assured that the holiday show will offer something to everyone — including the hardcore Christmas traditionalists.

"There's something that's really fun about the intimacy of being in someone's home (for the holidays) — the laughs and the stories. That's the attitude and the atmosphere that we want to create. So we play Christmas carols that people know and some they don't, some upbeat Celtic (songs)," Nadeau explained.

"There's so much diversity. It's all connected and there's this lovely thread throughout the concert, but there's variety, too."

Tickets are $25 or $20 for those 34 and under, available at the door or at the Whistler Museum, and online at whistlerchamber.ca or brownpapertickets.com.

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