Yesterday was the first time I had heard a live performance by one of New Zealand’s most remarkable pianists, Michael Houston. Perhaps the most stellar pianist New Zealand has produced, and recognised on the international stage, Michael Houston opened the 2013 University of Waikato Lunchtime Recital season to a full house, performing Bach’s Goldberg Variations. A student of Sister Mary Eulalie and Maurice Till, Houston won every major piano competition in New Zealand by the age of 18. Further study overseas and success in international competitions followed. The ticket price to hear a musician of this experience and calibre was a mere $5, offering ease of access to a world-class concert in a concert chamber with stunning acoustics. The Lunchtime Series is indeed a Waikato treasure.
The Goldberg Variations have an interesting history. I will quote directly from the programme: “Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) wrote his ‘Keyboard Exercises Consisting of an Aria with Sundry Variations for Harpsichords with 2 Manuals (Keyboards) BWV’ in the last decade of his life.” It appears Bach composed the music for Count Keyserlingk who hired harpsichordist Johann Theophilus Goldberg to play the variations whenever he couldn’t sleep. Keyserlingk paid Bach the equivalent of three years of Bach’s salary for the compositions, and the performer, Goldberg, was immortalised with the work – “a situation unique in classical music as far as I can tell,” says the programme writer. “Bach was clearly aware of Goldberg’s fabulous abilities as he felt free to write music whose technical demands far exceeded anything he had hitherto composed for keyboard instruments.”
I was intrigued on reading the programme (after the performance) that the piece was written for harpsichord as there were times during the performance when Houston achieved the distinctive harpsichord sound from the Steinway grand. Watching Houston’s virtuoso performance – where the original composition for two keyboards now had to be played on only one and where a number of variations included lots of hand crossing (a bit like rubbing your tummy while patting your head?) – made me wonder about the choice of such music by an insomniac. The frequent shifts of mood and pace had me sitting on the edge of my seat. Quiet and contemplative variations were followed by variations that were rapid and lively. I smiled when Judy said she wanted to leap out of her seat and dance, as I had been resolutely sitting still when I, too, was resisting the urge to engage in some toe-tapping. The audience gave Houston a well-deserved standing ovation. We left the performance feeling uplifted, invigorated and totally impressed.
This year, Houston is celebrating his 60th birthday by staying in New Zealand and playing Beethoven – 40 concerts, 32 piano sonatas, 10 centres and seven programmes. The promotional material for the “Beethoven recycle” says Houston ranks among the great Beethoven pianists of our age. Check out where you can enjoy a Houston Beethoven performance on the Chamber Music New Zealand website.
On his own website Houston generously offers free downloads of performances recorded a few years ago at the Dr John Gallagher Concert Chamber (the venue for yesterday’s performance).
I am already excited by next week’s Lunchtime Recital Series performance – operatic gems and piano trios with performers such as Dame Malvina Major and David Griffiths. I sang in a church choir with David Griffiths when I was a teenager. I just wish a smidgeon of his musical talent had rubbed off on me.