Double-bass star and classical prankster Hiroshi Ikematsu returns to New Zealand

by Elizabeth Kerr / 05 October, 2018
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Hiroshi Ikematsu.

Hiroshi Ikematsu, a keen angler, is returning to the country to play a Trout.

When Hiroshi Ikematsu was principal double bass in the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra between 2006 and 2013, he developed a reputation as a bit of a prankster. The bassists once turned out in tutus when the NZSO played ballet music, and they donned multicoloured wigs for the final concert of retiring colleague Vicki Jones, whose brightly coloured hairstyles made her stand out in the bass section. There was never any doubt that Ikematsu was the ringleader on both occasions.

Ikematsu’s sense of mischief sometimes extended to the music. Once, when the NZSO was rehearsing Mahler’s Symphony No 1 with conductor Pietari Inkinen, the bassist made some adjustments to the piece. In the symphony’s slow movement, a solo bass kicks off a round that most recognise as Frère Jacques, though Mahler wrote it in a minor key. Ikematsu began it in a major key and “just kept going”, remembers Jones, who sat beside him.

Ikematsu recalls with delight that other musicians followed him, even if Inkinen wasn’t amused. “I like to make jokes and that’s one of the reasons I love New Zealand – the NZSO is very different from Japanese orchestras. When I did that Mahler joke with a Japanese orchestra, no one laughed. They thought I’d cracked up.”

Now principal bass with the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra and a university professor, Ikematsu is returning for a tour with members of the New Zealand String Quartet and pianist Piers Lane for Chamber Music New Zealand.

He is now “a phenomenon and an enigma”, says String Quartet cellist Rolf Gjelsten about the musician who is now regarded as one of the finest bassists in the world. That’s despite an initial reluctance to take up the instrument – at high school he was offered clarinet or double bass. “I chose clarinet because I didn’t want to play the big stupid bass,” he remembers. He graduated to cello, and when the school’s ensemble had no conductor, Ikematsu picked up a baton.

He was encouraged to take up the double bass to further his progress towards a professional conducting career. He did, but halfheartedly. At the Toho Gakuen School of Music in Tokyo, however, he discovered that playing bass in an orchestra was fun. “I like that under-the-radar role”. He was also inspired by a tutor’s performance of the Double Bass Concerto by bass-playing Russian composer Serge Koussevitzky. “It inspired me – I wanted to play like him. From then on, I practised really hard.” It paid off. He eventually became principal bassist of Tokyo’s NHK Symphony Orchestra.

Ikematsu brought his family with him when he got the NZSO job. The attractions were more than musical: he wanted his children to grow up with more access to the outdoors “and less PlayStation”. He was a keen trout fisherman, too, winning the national pairs fly-fishing championship while living here.

After seven years, he took the bait of better remuneration and career and teaching opportunities in Japan, but New Zealand and its rivers are still close to his heart. On the forthcoming chamber music tour, he’ll be playing Schubert’s Trout Quintet. Also on the programme is the world premiere of a new quintet by composer Ross Harris, Orowaru, inspired, the composer says, by “the complex harmonic beauty of the rivers near Turangi”. Sounds perfect for a bass player with a fishing rod.

Piers Lane, Hiroshi Ikematsu and members of the New Zealand String Quartet, Christchurch, October 5; Napier, October 7; New Plymouth, October 9; Wellington, October 11; Auckland, October 12.

This article was first published in the October 6, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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