Beethoven reCYCLE: Only the beginning of something truly special

Monday, 15 April 2013

By Andrew Stantiall, Positively Wellington Venues - Reporting LIVE

"I should have done more homework" I said to my companion as we sat down in the front row of the Ilott Theatre after wading through a sea of grey hair and silk scarves. Admittedly, I had done quite a bit.

I studied music almost a decade ago at high school but I hadn't had anything to do with classical music since then. I made contact with a couple of friends who had actually studied for and gained degrees in musical things, desperate to know more about what I was getting myself into.

They told me that Michael Houstoun was in fact, a highly acclaimed New Zealand pianist and internationally one of the best Beethoven performers. He would be performing 32 sonatas over 40 concerts as part of his reCYCLE series and the works would be some of Beethoven's most-loved. Last night’s performance was opening night and we were front and centre.

So there I was, head down, studying the programme, trying to take myself back to Ms Hodge's 7th form music class. I went to a college where paying attention was encouraged rather than enforced… What was an opus? What does allegro mean again? Surely that’s not a gelato flavour.

Houstoun sat down at the piano in his black and silver blazer. The opening notes hit with vigour and rapid technicality and I my immediate reaction was "how am I going to write about this! I don't know enough about Beethoven and sonatas and chamber music stuff!" But all of that soon left my mind as Houstoun took the audience on a journey through the urgent and technical to the slower, almost tragic and melancholic movements. Houstoun's expression and body language reflecting the emotion and thought behind every single note played. 

It wasn't until half time after talking to a few people I began to realise that this was only the beginning of something truly special. One woman described how she had seen him play in the 1990's and how he used to be a lot more animated when he played. Another young guy, a pianist himself, with big hair was amazed at how Houstoun remembered all that Beethoven by heart and how he would "have to play 24/7 to ever be that good".

Interval over, my friend and I sat down again to study the programme to actually work out what bit we were up to. It finally all came together when Michael launched into the sonata I actually HAD listened to as part of my homework. The Waldestein sonata. Houstoun has spent years perfecting his touch. Every note was crystal clear and has its own life.

It was at this point I realised I was sitting metres from a truly talented and special New Zealander. You don't need to be a classical music expert to understand that.