Japan Music Fair with five fine musicians

Chamber music from east and west, Music Fair of Japan

Ilott Theatre, Saturday 11 July 2009

This was the fourth Japanese Festival which has included a concert by Japanese musicians. These are the result of collaboration between the Embassy, the Asia-New Zealand and the Japan Foundations and the Wellington City Council. Where the previous ones have featured only a couple of musicians, this time there were five, including, almost as the star turn, the principal double bass of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Hiroshi Ikematsu.

Those who saw him performing at a concert at St Mary of the Angels last year will have vivid memories of both his extraordinary skill and musical gifts and his virtuosity as comedian and musical acrobat. Here he took an early Italian soprano aria that has recently become popular – Caccini’s Ave Maria (my first encounter on Inessa Galante’s debut CD a decade or so ago); it merely displayed the way he refuses to be limited by the bass’s low register, competing with the violin’s range by playing beautiful legato lines.

What delighted and astonished the full house even more was his transformation of Monti’s famous Csardas from the normally impossible violin showpiece to the same on bass, with a few surprise comic stunts thrown in: some involving pianist Susumu Aoyagi as fall-guy.

Yet the rest were not merely excellent musicians. Violinist Ayoko Ishikawa, who graduated from the Sydney Conservatorium, acted as MC with a delightful playful manner and a joyous way with her phrase endings as she introduced colleagues and pieces of music.

As well as playing a couple of charming Japanese pieces, she played the Meditation from Thaïs, Saint-Saëns’s Dance Macabre and Libertango by Piazzola, with quite a swagger.

The concert had opened atmospherically – the lights went gently down and from the back the sound of the Japanese flute (shinobue) arose, playing the well-known piece from the Japanese highlands, Amazing Grace and it was taken up by the koto which was ready in the front and played by Lisa Kataoka in a beautiful kimono. She continued at the koto, singing charmingly, and was joined by the other instrumentalists in two other pieces. 

We saw the flute player, Takako Hagiwara, in the second half, also kimono-clad, again emerge from behind us and continue playing as she walked slowly down the right aisle. She played a composition of her own on the shinobue and with pianist Susumu Aoyagi played her arrangement from Carmen which was a most impressive virtuosic display.

Finally, the pianist. As well as accompanying many pieces, a model of discretion and sensitivity to the music’s character, he had opened the concert with two Nocturnes (Op Post. and Op 27 No 2) and an Etude (Op 25, No 11) of Chopin. Somewhat angular without much subtlety in the left hand, but his Japanese pieces sounded idiomatic and he left the audience somewhat overwhelmed by his tumultuous playing of Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody. 

The concert was free and while the style of music was essentially for popular consumption, we had a line up of superb or at least excellent musicians to demonstrate how a non-European nation with deep traditions of its own, can achieve world class standards and build up very large audiences for classical music.

A lesson that may be pertinent for New Zealand.

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