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East meets West

The shortage of marimba/cello duets in the world is said to have been too much for American composer and percussionist, Andrew Beall.

On Monday, marimba specialist Yoshiko Tsuruta and cellist Heleen du Plessis will fix that when they combine the bright sound of the marimba’s rosewood bars with the resinous voice of a 1900s French cello.

Those at Tsuruta’s solo concert in Gisborne two years ago will remember her high-energy, concentrated performance and the exotic sound of a percussive keyboard that goes beyond the standard, five octave, concert marimba. The marimba has been used in classical music performances in Japan and Europe for the past 70 to 80 years, Tsuruta told the Guide in 2017.

“It’s just not commonly associated with classical music in New Zealand.”

The Japanese-born musician is on a mission to change all that.

Returning this time with du Plessis under the banner Duo Col Legno, the marimba player and cellist have included in their wide-ranging programme Beall’s marimba and cello version of his composition, Song of ‘Almah. The work is derived from Old Testament text, Song of Solomon. Despite his 700 marriages and various maidservant dalliances the king fell deeply in love with ‘Almah (“young girl”) and made her his only beloved. Solomon wrote the original text in about 945BC and regarded it as his “song of all songs.”

Also in the programme is du Plessis’s most recent Cellists Aotearoa commission, Tahunui-a-rangi. Written for marimba and cello by New Zealand composer Gareth Farr the work is based on the Maori interpretation of the Aurora Australis. Farr blends the sound of a string and a percussion instrument with the inclusion of extended techniques such as bowing the marimba, say Tsuruta’s programme notes.

“This produces a unique ‘aurora-like’ sound that merges beautifully with the cello’s artificial harmonics. Furthermore, a string technique called col legno — ‘with the wood’, in which the cellist taps the string with the wooden part of the bow — is used, while the marimbist strikes the edge of the bar with the shaft of the mallets.”

At the world premiere of the work in Otago Museum’s Perpetual Guardian Planetarium this month, the duo wove their instruments with atmospheric effects and colourful electric dancing veils overhead to create a cocoon of light and sound, enthused reviewer Brenda Harwood.

“Creating everything from low groans to percussive sounds with her bow, du Plessis showed the extraordinary versatility of the cello, while Tsuruta was in perpetual motion as she drew streams of bell-like tones from the marimba.”

“A lot of people find it absolutely amazing the blend of cello and marimba is so good,” says du Plessis.

“There are not a lot of pieces written for the combination. In the Farr piece, Yoshiko makes use of extended techniques where she uses two bows to pull on the sides of the keyboard to make a unique sound.”

Also commissioned by Du Plessis as part of her Cello for Africa project was A Sense of Place by South African composer Peter Klatzow. Composed for marimba and cello the work is made up of two movements — Shaka’s Victory Dance, and Mask which is based on two painted woodcuts by South African painter Cecil Skotnes.

“The wooden mask . . . resonates in the sound of the marimba and is echoed by the cello — its hidden soul revealed in the melodic parts,” writes Tsuruta.

“The self (cello) is reflected in the other (marimba), yet their sameness is concealed behind a stern veneer.”

The commissioned works came out of du Plessis’s doctorate-based project, Cello for Africa, and Cellists Aotearoa, in which she explored musical identity, a sense of place and belonging. The research-based performance productions present new music and music that crosses cultures and genres.

Arrangements Tsuruta wrote for marimba and cello include 20th century Bulgarian composer and guitarist Atanas Ourkouzounov’s Tonzologia which was originally written for cello and guitar.

“ Yoshiko uses extended techniques on the marimba to mimic sounds the composer used on guitar,” says du Plessis.

These include hitting the frame, lipping the mallets to play with their back-ends.

Asked to describe the character of the combined sound of cello and marimba du Plessis says the fusion is unique. The marimba is capable of creating diminished chords and the clear attack of guitar; with tremolo in places and even wood on wood or bow on wood sounds.

“The cello fits well with it — sometimes it blends, sometimes it’s on top, sometimes beneath. I tell Yoshiko the cello makes anything sound better. Just this once I would say the marimba makes the cello play better.”

Duo Col Legno. Presented in association with Chamber Music New Zealand, marimbist Yoshiko Tsuruta and cellist Heleen du Plessis perform at St Andrews Church, Monday, 7.30pm. Adults $30, students $10. Door sales only.

MESMERISING: As Duo Col Legno, marimba specialist Yoshiko Tsuruta (left) and cellist Heleen du Plessis bring their unique sound and wide-ranging programme to Gisborne on Monday. “The audience will be on the edge of their seats,” says du Plessis. “Comments we have had from previous concerts are that our performance is mesmerising and engaging". Picture supplied