NZSO basses inflict huge entertainment and risks to the building

The Big Six
Easy listening music from films, musicals, ballet and the light music repertoire.

Six NZSO bass players (Principal Hiroshi Ikematsu)
Special guest artist: Vesa-Matti Leppanen (NZSO Concert Master)

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Saturday 23 November 2013, 5 pm

The Big Six would have to be the most engaging concert I have been to in 2013. It was pure, unbridled celebration of the contrabass instrument by six NZSO players whose overflowing enthusiasm and wonderful audience rapport had the many children and adults transported with them. Music was never more fun, and making that music on a bass was undoubtedly the most fun way to do it.

The players ranged themselves round a colourful child’s pushcar which occupied centre stage. The decidedly shonky tuning-up
procedures elicited immediate mirth, before the group launched into a medley of popular swing tunes in close harmony, with the lowest bass in jazzy pizzicato mode – Glenn Miller’s signature Moonlight Serenade, Francis Lai’s A Man and a Woman, and Duke Ellington’s Mood Indigo. You could almost see the couples sashaying across the floor, and it set the mood for an afternoon of thoroughly relaxed music making.

After an appealing French number by Eric Hardie we were treated to the appearance of the Special Guest Artist in T-shirt, shorts, and dark glasses (as were all the players).  He was clearly heading off for a day in the sun, and after clambering, with difficulty, into the child’s pushcar, his antics were backed by the complete sound track for a day’s fishing expedition – the bang of the car door, a couple of false engine starts, the idling motor, the roar of juggernauts overtaking on the motorway, the birdcalls and swishing waves of the coastline, and all the thrill of reeling in the big one which of course, at the eleventh hour, escaped………. It was creative ‘musical’ entertainment at its very best.

Hiroshi next presented a set of solo variations by a Japanese composer on one of the well known Paganini violin caprices. He claimed it was the most difficult piece in the solo bass repertoire, and proceeded to show us why. Abetted by a bright orange spider attached to the back of his left hand, he undertook the most incredible string-playing gymnastics, while never losing sight entirely of the theme, despite frequent attempts at interference from the spider. The extraordinary playing skills and special effects could have been executed only by a consummate master of the instrument, and the composer would likewise have had to be intimately acquainted with all these possibilities. When a fellow listener expressed a sneaking suspicion that the named “contemporary Japanese composer” and Hiroshi might be one and the same, I thought he’d very likely hit the nail on the head!

After the interval the group enacted a musical love story, where all the instruments were upside down, totally concealing the players’ faces. They ‘played’ blind and bow-less, using only the short strings running between bridge and tailpiece, with much drumming and slapping  of the body of the instruments for percussive effects. All the while they were enacting some tentative dance moves until two of them separated shyly from the group and ventured the first kiss, with appropriate sound effects. It was funny, clever, and somehow rather touching.

This was followed by a couple more attractive brackets of film and dance music, a Japanese rock number, then an item from Zanzibar which wound up with the reappearance of the Special Guest Artist – not fishing this time, but staggering under the load of the NZSO’s huge gong – which Hiroshi duly struck to end the piece. But this was not to be the Special Guest’s swansong. In due course we were told that he had persistently tried to insinuate himself into the programme on his chosen instrument, the violin of course, but had been firmly informed that this was a bass concert, so “too bad”. Undeterred however, he turned up on stage with a bass no less, and gave a remarkably creditable, and suitably ponderous, rendition of the elephant from Saint Saens’ Carnival of the Animals, much to the amusement of the audience.

For the penultimate piece, the band was cut to two, and we were treated to the remaining four male bassists, ably led by Hiroshi, prancing their way light(?) footedly through Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, decked out in the traditional white gossamer tutus, swan-feather fascinators, and copious (untraditional) underarm and leg fuzz. It was a hoot, and the audience just about brought the roof down.

In the final number the players wore beautiful short kimono-style tops and matching headbands. They played a Japanese piece that started out with a plaintive, evocative theme from Hiroshi and gradually built up to a dramatic finish with shouted interjections and driving rhythms stamped out by the players. It was an exciting end to a brilliantly conceived programme, brilliantly executed. If you weren’t there you missed a great experience and a hugely entertaining afternoon.


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