Dazzling star music for “Matariki’ from Gareth Farr

GARETH FARR – Ngā Hihi o Matariki (world premiere)

Lyrics by Mere Boynton and Ariana Tikao

Mere Boynton reo oro (vocalist) and Ariana Tikao raonga puoro and reo oro

NZSO conducted by Gemma New

 Friday 9 July, 6.30 pm, Michael Fowler Centre

A new work by Gareth Farr is always an event, so it was no surprise to see the Michael Fowler Centre completely full. The stage was completely full as well, with an enormous percussion section hard up against the back wall.

The house lights went down, and the spotlights fell on three cloaked figures standing at the foot of the choir stalls, a man flanked by two women. The woman on the right, Pekaira Jude Rei, began her karanga. It began straightforwardly enough – a message of welcome from the tangata whenua, Te Atiawa ki Te Whanganui a Tara, with some explanation of the significance of Matariki. Then the woman on the left (Rangiamohia Bolstad) continued – a contralto following a soprano – with much more complex language, so I lost the thread pretty fast. She was using an ancient text, or texts, as the programme described her as ‘connector to wisdom from baskets of old’, referring to the kete of knowledge.  Her karanga was long, but no one stirred. Finally, the man in the centre, Te Ahu Jason Hamilton, billed as the Kai Ruruku, Connector to the Heavens, began a prayer. Finally, they sang together, an ancient chant – full of star lore, I’m guessing.

They finished. The effect was arresting, connecting the very modern musical event with the teachings and texts of the ancestors handed down to the present.

The stage lights came up, the orchestra tuned bathetically, conductor Gemma New arrived on the podium, and with a Farr-like chord from the metallophones, the work began.

Ngā Hihi o Matariki (the rays of Matariki, the Pleiades) is a symphonic-length work in seven movements. The programme notes describe it as a ’concerto for orchestra’. It proceeds without a break, but each section begins with percussion, and the two women, vocalist Mere Boynton and taonga puoro player Ariana Tikao, move on stage and off as required.

Matariki, as every school child now knows, marks the start of the Māori new year when it is first seen above the northern horizon in the early morning sky. The stars are also part of the Waka o Takitimu, of which three stars in Orion form the stern of the canoe. The souls of the people who have died in the past year appear now as feathers tied to its stern – a nice example of traditional Māori star lore connecting with Western astronomy, as the nebula in Orion is a place where new stars are being born.

Each of the Matariki stars has a name and significance, and the seven movements of the work are named for nine stars (two sets of pairs). The star lore provides the programme for the piece (although this may have eluded the audience, as there was not enough light in the auditorium to read the printed programme). The first movement, Waitī/Waitā, calls the firmament into being. First the metallophones, then the flutes and piccolo, with the voice of Mere Boynton evoking water, springing from the earth and flowing to the sea. This is water as an act of creation. The lower strings groan into life, as though being born. The muted trumpets stammer a rhythm, answered by a haunting solo from the cor.

The second movement begins with a percussion chord like a clock striking. This is Waipunarangi (or Waipuna ā Rangi), the star associated with rain. The strings do most of the work in this movement, with a wonderful long viola solo, rushing and rushing, finally taken up by the bass trombone and tuba, and the tuned percussion. This is painting with music: it’s all about colour and texture.

The women came back for the third movement, Tupu-ā-nuku (food that grows in the soil) and Tupu-ā-rangi (food that grows in trees). These are the two small stars on the right hand side of the cluster. Mere Boynton’s splendid voice was accompanied by Ariana Tikao on pūtõrino, building to a climax. The fourth movement, Uru-ā-rangi, was all about wind, with the lower brass and lower strings evoking the storm.

And so it went on. For me, the most impressive movement was the fifth, Põhutukawa, in which Boynton’s glorious voice communicated the grief of loss, evoking the memories of treasured people who have died. It is traditional to mourn the recently dead at Matariki, when their souls leave the Earth to become new stars.

By the time we reached the seventh section, Hiwa-i-te-rangi, all about hopes and dreams, Farr was prepared to throw everything at it. The rototoms were drumming complex slit-drum rhythms, plus bass drum and timpani, Tikao arrived on stage with a pūtātara, Mere Boynton opened her throat, and the back of the orchestra went wild. It was a huge and thrilling climax. And then just the voice, and the tinkling sounds of the starlight percussion.

The Wellington audience immediately let out a great shout – the most fervent applause I can remember for a new work. But not just any new work: 66 minutes of commissioned work for orchestra (supported by a long list of donors) by one of our favourite composers for the new national festival of Matariki.

Keeping it all together was the accomplished Gemma New, our rising international conducting star. She is the recipient of the 2021 Sir George Solti Conducting Award, and has for several years been Music Director of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra. Her list of engagements for the 2021/22 season is extraordinary. And she is not yet 35.

Mere Boynton is the perfect collaborator for Gareth Farr. She and Ariana Tikao provided texts, taonga puoro accents, and provided much of the emotional depth. Boynton’s operatic training ensures her voice has sufficient weight and brilliance to hold its own against the full orchestra. At least some of her material was improvised, and she has terrific stage presence. In short, she was electrifying.

Ngā Hihi o Matariki is more complex than some of Farr’s earlier commissions. It’s not merely an hour of dazzling orchestral effects, but a work that demands a deeper response from its audience. A very fitting work for this reflective and hopeful time of year. I very much hope we can hear this work again – perhaps next Matariki – as long as Mere Boynton is available.




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