Sending it up on the double bass and sparkling at the piano, plus other strings

Chamber Music New Zealand
Piers Lane (piano) and Hiroshi Ikematsu (double bass) and members of the New Zealand String Quartet: Monique Lapins (violin), Gillian Ansell (viola), Rolf Gjelsten (cello)

Schubert: Adagio and Rondo Concertante in F, D. 487
Piano Quintet in A Major, D. 667 (“Trout”)
Rossini: Duo for Cello and Double bass in D Major
Ross Harris: Orowaru (CMNZ Commission for the Quintet]

Michael Fowler Centre

Thursday 11 October, 7:30 pm

This concert in Chamber Music New Zealand’s subscription series had an unusual character.

It featured two international-class musicians alongside three of the members of the New Zealand String Quartet. Piers Lane has made several visits to New Zealand, including at least a couple of times to the Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson. As in the present concert, both pianist and bassist have often been in combination with chamber music ensembles. This was such a concert, made especially diverting through the involvement of bassist Hiroshi Ikematsu.

Schubert: mock ‘piano quartet’
They began with a piano quartet by Schubert which I’d never come across. It was written in 1816, when he was 19 or 20, his only piece for piano and string trio, and one of the first pieces for that combination. (Mozart had written two that are well known, in 1785-6; Beethoven wrote three (WoO 36) in his mid teens, in the same year as Mozart’s; Weber wrote one in 1809; Mendelssohn’s first three opus numbers are piano quartets, written typically, in his early teens, 1823–1825 aged about 15).

But Schubert’s is not formally a piano quartet for it has only two movements and presents itself as something of a showpiece, with a piano part that doesn’t sound designed for himself to play, at least not in the Rondo Allegro (he didn’t consider himself a concert pianist). However, the first movement, Adagio, offered genial, lyrical tunes that weren’t very sophisticated and one rather looked forward to perhaps a more mature, interesting Allegro movement. The second movement certainly lent itself to a more vivid and showy performance; its phrases were generally short-winded, and avoided any suggestion that Schubert’s intention was to compete with the pieces by Mozart which he might have known. Beethoven’s were not published till after his death. Piers Lane’s approach to the piano part was flamboyant in its fluency and dynamism, building towards the end with an extended Coda which gave the piece a stature that might have evaded other players.

But it hardly created a feeling that Schubert might have flourished as a composer of concertante music, such as a piano concerto.

Rossini’s Duo for cello and double bass
Hiroshi Ikematsu’s presence was explained by the Duo for cello and double bass by Rossini, written during a lucrative London visit in 1823 for a distinguished Italian bass player working in London, Dominico Dragonetti.

Rossini and Ikematsu were a perfect fit; both delighted in exploiting the potential of music to raise a smile, sometimes almost to give in to laughter. The bassist is one of those beings with the talent for exploiting the funny aspect, even sometimes not intended, of musical gestures, through a facial expression, his stance, and obviously what he does with his arms and hands. The kind of thing that in less intelligent and gifted musicians could seem crass and crude. But much of the wit was there in the music itself, but only if the player(s) can exploit it, and Gjelsten perfectly matched his companion in a slightly less riotous wit. If you need proof that it’s possible to play the piece straight – beautifully certainly – but without the jokes and japes, look at one of the YouTube recordings like

Ikematsu, without disrespect to Rossini, sometimes seemed to mock his own or the cello part, suggested that as the cello sounds were actually disappearing off the top of the A string, a quick scratch of the nose… He toys with the audience’s expectations that this is the end of the first movement… he fails, tries again, misses again, and so on.

They subtly send up the slow movement (and Rolf Gjelsten played his part immaculately, with his own subtle humour), making the combination of cello bowing and bass pizzicato hilariously absurd; one is hard pressed to understand just how they do it. And towards the end Ikematsu secretively creates ethereal sul ponticello sounds with a weird posture; it leads to another protracted Rossini-style finale send-up.

Harris: Orowaru
Then the scene changed dramatically; all five players assembled for Ross Harris’s newly-commissioned work, Orowaru (the rippling sound of water). There’s no scope here for mockery or visual or musical jokes.

Harris has created a delicate tapestry of sound that suggests very evocatively not just the literal sounds of running water, specifically in three trout-fishing rivers round Lake Taupo: Hineaiaia, Waipehi and Tongariro. It also picks up rather more metaphysical or religious aspects of the sacred art of trout fishing; for here was the crux of the concert. Ikematsu, in addition to his bass talents, is a gifted trout fisherman, and legends about his preternatural skills which are evidently attaining the status of miracles in the mysterious world of fishing, even though it involves a non-indigenous fish. Obviously, it connects with the last piece in the concert, Schubert’s Trout Quintet, and Orowaru employs the same instruments.

The piece rather successfully creates, not just specific watery sounds that may or may not be music, but the play of and between the five instruments, the appearance of recognisable musical motifs, and a sense of shape and change in the way a normally constructed piece of music does, held the attention through musical processes rather than mere imitation of the sounds of water.

And no, I didn’t pick just when we moved from the Hineaiaia to the Waipehi river, but did feel that the scene had changed after a little while. But the bell-bird (?) at the end was audible enough.

Then the Trout Quintet. After the careful and discreet performances by all five players in Orowaru, this was a performance that, perhaps significantly influenced by the very conspicuous musical personality of the pianist, was boisterous, extravert, not the least reflective; and it was again the opportunity for Ikematsu’s bass to express it’s player’s love of surprise and the slightly unorthodox.

Nevertheless, in spite of the occasional feeling that there was a distinct difference in the spirit of the performance between the full quintet and strings alone, without piano, it was easy to recognise a very conspicuous rapport among all five.

I put it down to the fact that Schubert wrote more naturally for the piano than for strings, though the character of his last quartets and the two piano trios make that a doubtful remark.

The spirit of the playing and at times the unexpected brevity of movements made me wonder whether a repeat had been passed over; though I had intended to check that with a score, my own miniature score is missing, and so… In the light of Schubert’s tendency to extend his material, in his later works, almost excessively, nothing here outstayed its welcome; the Scherzo was a singularly exhilarating case.

The Trout itself, in the fourth movement, was varied and colourful, perhaps not giving much opportunity to lament the eventual fate of the fish (does Ikematsu have ambivalent feelings here?). It was here in particular that in contrast to Helene Pohl’s luminous tone, Monique Lapins’ presence as violinist was less arresting, but warmer.

The finale was a splendid, piano-led romp, that tempts applause before its time but ended quite unscathed. A delightful concert.


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.