100 per cent Kiwi at the keys

By William Dart

Hooray. Artsville, despite its tombstone time slot, is making a commitment to the country's classical music scene.

Two weeks ago, Annie Goldson's Elgar's Enigma had the hour to itself; last week, Gary Scott's Aspiring featured composer Douglas Lilburn alongside Brian Brake, James K. Baxter and John Drawbridge.

As well, this Saturday, enjoy a documentary profile of our most celebrated concert pianist, Michael Houstoun. The title, Piano Man, may reveal the rock'n'roll background of producer Colin Hogg but, I am pleased to say, Houstoun breaks into Poulenc and Beethoven rather than Billy Joel, as did Dan Poynton when he turned up on The Big Art Trip.

Houstoun is one of our most cherished godwits. He fared well on the international competition circuit - 3rd in the 1978 Van Cliburn, 4th at Leeds two years later, and 6th at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Competition in 1982 - and yet he chose to forge a career in New Zealand.

Piano Man delves away and uncovers revelations that might startle, along with the inevitable humanising that happens when a concert hall icon confesses that "when my stomach flips, I take it seriously".

The New Zealandness of this man is refreshing when so often British and American accents vouchsafe for our musical culture. His images, too, are 100 per cent Kiwi, admitting in an interview from the early 80s, that he felt "like a pound of butter" in the hands of the media marketers.

Hogg and director John Carlaw neatly sketch in the pianist's background with a supportive mother, a remote father - Houstoun remembers getting all his practice done while Dad was out farming - and his first teacher, Sister Mary Eulalie, who, now in her 90s, confesses to having had to "put the hard word" on the freckle-faced lad at one point.

From more recent times, there is extended footage of the Christchurch Symphony's 2005 performance of John Psathas' View from Olympus with Houstoun playing alongside ace percussionist Lenny Sakofsky and lengthy coverage of the pianist's battle with focal dystonia.

What a pity that both seem awkwardly staged alongside the engaging interviews that pepper the show.

Interviews are at their best when they reminisce rather than eulogise. My favourite has Ian Fraser jocularly recalling how Houstoun's performance of Liszt's Mephisto Waltz trimmed his own pianistic ambitions, making him feel like a "draughthorse alongside a thoroughbred".

Which brings me to the documentary's strength: the chance to see footage from throughout Houstoun's career. Apart from a snatch of the Liszt, there's an early 70s Prokofiev Third Piano Concerto with Vincent Aspey leading the then-NZBC Symphony Orchestra. Years pass; haircuts and concertmasters change. Peter Schaffer is in the same seat when an elegant Houstoun tackles the Tchaikovsky First. Not to mention footage of 70s Auckland, the city of Fiat Bambinas and walkshorts.

Houstoun's career cannot be compressed into 70 minutes and there are inevitable omissions. I find it regrettable that the admittedly brilliant Psathas, our musical Olympian, should be the sole representative of the New Zealand composer. Houstoun has played Carr, Lilburn, Body, Farr, Blake, Young, Cresswell and others, many caught on the pianist's Elusive Dreams CD. Acknowledgment would have been appreciated.

* What: Piano Man

* Where and when: TV One, Saturday June 10, 9.50pm

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