Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Ngā Hihi o Matariki
Composer Gareth Farr
Lyrics by Mere Boynton
Taonga Pūoro composition by Ariana Tikao
Auckland Town Hall, July 2
Wellington Michael Fowler Centre July 9
Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples
The celebration of Matariki has increased over the past couple of decades and is now recognised as part of the New Zealand calendar signalling the time to plan and prepare for the spring garden.
The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra has commissioned a new work by Gareth Farr to celebrate the event for this year along with various collaborators including singer Mere Boynton and taonga puora exponent Ariana Tikao. The resulting work Ngā Hihi o Matariki is a stunning creation full of spectacular sounds and innovative musical textures.
Matariki (The Pleiades or Seven Sisters) is the star cluster which signifies the Maori New Year but in many parts of New Zealand the Matariki group is precede by Puanga (Rigel in the Orion Constellation) and is recognised by some iwi as the harbinger of the New Year instead of Matariki.
The work is in seven movements with a nod to the “Seven Sisters” and each of the sections can be seen as a reflection on the history and mythology of the land, expressing images of the changing heavens, the elements of air, water, light, genealogy, acknowledging birth and death.
In the work Gareth Farr skilfully combines the sounds of the traditional symphony orchestra with the sounds of various taonga puora played by Ariana Tikao
Farr is a master of the dramatic sounds and his use of the percussion, woodwinds and brass is never just as background, they are always to the fore in providing dramatic sounds. The orchestra for this work was bolstered with harp and piano adding to the percussive nature of the work. The addition of taonga puoru augmented the range of sound as well as providing an ethereal sound. Farr’s use of the instruments demonstrates his ability to conceptualise and illustrate the ideas around the event through music.
So, the work describes the night sky and the appearance of the stars not just as astronomical phenomenon but their impact on the viewer and their connections with the past and the present. In the opening movement the woodwinds convey the clarity of the night sky night sky and then the appearance of the brilliant stars while a rowdy glockenspiel proclaims the burst light which comes with the dawning of a new day and year.
With many of the sequences the orchestra began with a tentative theme which slowly developed or abruptly erupted with onslaughts of sound, the layers of resonance creating images of new life and new dimensions.
Mere Boynton and Ariana Tikao appear several times on stage entering and leaving like ethereal soothsayers or Greek oracles, their appearances giving the work a ritualistic feel. Boynton’s powerful voice which ranged from the simple karanga to almost operatic in scope was full of drama and emotion, enhanced by Tikao’s playing various taonga puora.
Unfortunately, the words were not presented as surtitles so the overall impact was diminished, the audience experienced the excitement of the delivery but missed on the subtlety and nuance of the spirit of the words.
Conductor Gemma New was a guiding presence directing the orchestra with an assured poise and at times her raised arms gave her the appearance of a sprouting fern frond.
Despite the music being occasionally formulaic and repetitive this was a remarkable work by Gareth Farr and an outstanding display by the orchestra with a joyous display of sound including the full range of sounds from the percussion, strings, woodwind and brass. It is a work which should enter the canon of major New Zealand works, celebrating not just Matariki but the confluence of musical and cultural ideas.