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Arts Festival Review: Peaks of Cloud

Arts Festival Review - Keith Lewis & Michael Houstoun: Peaks of Cloud

Review by Margaret Thompson

Keith Lewis & Michael Houstoun: Peaks of Cloud
Henry Purcell: So when the glittering Queen of Night Not all my torments, What power art thou, Evening Hymn
Jenny McLeod: ‘Peaks of Cloud' (song cycle for tenor and piano, with poems by Janet Frame)(world premiere)
Benjamin Britten: ‘On This Island' Opus 11 (song cycle with words by W. H. Auden)
Samuel Barber: 3 Songs from ‘Ten Early Songs' published 1994; 3 Songs from ‘Collected Songs', 2 Songs from the ‘Hermit Songs'

Wellington Town Hall
7 March 2010


What a privilege to hear together Michael Houston’s shining piano playing and Keith Lewis’s sonorous and expressive voice, a dynamic partnership that seemed to enhance and flower as the evening went on. Two very talented players fronted the stage but with every song we also engaged at a deep level with the poet and composer. Every song was a masterful collaboration of four brilliant talents.

The show began with four Purcell songs and then became a showpiece for 20th-century songwriters. For me, unfamiliar with this genre of music, the concert was an unfolding revelation. The rather sombre Purcell songs had been “realised” by Britten for voice and keyboard. I did not find these as exciting as the music of the other composers - Jenny Mcleod setting Janet Frame poems, Benjamin Britten setting W H Auden poems and Samuel Barber setting a variety of poets including William Davies, James Joyce, WB Yeats and James Agee.

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The centre piece of the concert, the Mcleod/Frame song cycle, was commissioned by Keith Lewis, and this was its premiere. The music was indeed evocative of the very distinctive and personal poems by Frame. According to the programme notes, Jenny Mcleod immersed herself in Frame’s writing as preparation for composing. She describes Frame’s work as “springing from an astonishing and profoundly imaginative empathy with the world and people around her”. A few of the poems were not easy to understand on a first acquaintance while others were deceptively simple; but the music was always powerful and full of wonderful sounds. I look forward to a second listening.

The second half began with five Auden poems set beautifully by Britten in 1936 to reflect in musical terms the poem’s physical settings, cleverness and charm. The Barber settings were shorter and perhaps of more accessible poems. The music was delightful, lovely and sometimes also very moving.

I see my review is about the music rather than the players who brought it to life, but perhaps the short 12th century verse that ended the concert sums up the ethos of these two superb musicians.

“How foolish the man who does not raise
His voice and praise with joyful words,
As he alone can, Heaven’s high King.

To whom the light birds with no soul but air
All day, ev’rywhere, al day ev’rywhere,
Laudation sing, Laudation sing.”

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Press releases: Classical Music Premieres at the NZIAF Chamber Music Weekend, World Premieres for New Zealand Music and Theatre
Arts Festival website: Keith Lewis & Michael Houstoun: Peaks of Cloud

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