Matariki, the Māori New Year, occurs in New Zealand’s midwinter and celebrates the appearance in the sky of the constellation Matariki (known elsewhere as the Pleiades or Seven Sisters). Traditionally, this was a time to share the bounties of the harvest and is also a symbol of new beginnings; a time to reflect on the past, and make preparations for the future. As part of an ongoing revival of Māori culture and language, the celebration of Matariki as the Māori New Year has been experiencing a resurgence of interest, with it due to become a national holiday from 2022.

Mere Boynton
© New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

To mark the occasion this year, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra commissioned a significant new orchestral work from composer Gareth Farr, entitled Ngā Hihi o Matariki. The title comes from a Māori proverb expressing hope for the future just as the rays of Matariki illuminate the otherwise dark night sky. From New Zealand, nine stars can be seen within the Matariki cluster and Ngā Hihi o Matariki is made up of seven movements dedicated to stars within the cluster and their significance within Māori culture. Most of the movements focus on individual stars but with the first and third movements being devoted to a pair of stars each. Farr’s score featured the combination of orchestral music from the Western classical tradition with traditional Māori vocals and taonga pūoro (Māori traditional instruments), creating many memorable and evocative moments. Vocalists Mere Boynton and Ariana Tikao (who also played the taonga pūoro) contributed their own words for the vocal sections of the work, and Tikao also provided compositional elements too alongside the traditional chants and the vocal lines composed by Farr.

Gemma New
© Anthony Chang

The audience was welcomed before the start of the performance by local iwi (tribe) Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei and from there it was straight into the first movement, Waitī/Waitā, splendidly evoking the waters of river and sea, with xylophones and glockenspiels intoning ringing chords and introducing a wide-ranging and rather mysterious piccolo solo and gently glistening strings. Over these, Boynton and Tikao sang a warm homage to these waters that nourish us. This led into the highly contrasting second movement, the downpours of Waipuna-ā-rangi, in which strings and winds exchanged scampering figures between them, punctuated by bell-heavy chords – as conducted by Gemma New, this movement had quite the exciting propulsive energy. If the experience of this movement was of contemporary classical music in a relatively conventional sense, what followed was quite splendidly different indeed. Boynton’s rich and intense voice entered in an acknowledgement of the land, accompanied by Ariana Tikao’s soft pūtorino. Then Takao joined Boynton in song, her lighter voice combining in tangy harmonies as they sang of their connection to the environment. This was lovely, but the pūtorino is a very quiet instrument and as such was sometimes swamped by the orchestral winds. This relatively still moment was interrupted by the storms of the fourth movement Uru-ā-rangi. Repeated wind figures competing for attention with powerful explosions of percussion. Commanding brass outbursts, with that particular section in amazing form, also made their mark.

Ariana Tikao
© New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Boynton returned for the Pōhutukawa movement, an astonishingly moving song of grief for lost loved ones. Somehow her vocalism, while always firm and gloriously rich of tone, gave the impression of tears as she moved through the powerful phrases. Tikao’s soft pūoro added a ghostly quality to this lament’s accompaniment – this was some marvellously affecting music-making. The sixth movement was once again a strong contract to what had come before; languorous string phrases with an almost autumnal quality brought us into the world of the reflection of Matariki’s titular star. Pretty enough, this movement had its longeurs before it disintegrated into light and vigorous movement in strings and wind. The final movement (Hiwa-i-te-rangi) was triumphant in character, with rigorous rhythmic patterns beaten out by rototoms and timpani alternating with more tranquil episodes before the full percussion section roused the orchestra to a climax, acknowledging the star that represents our aspirations and wishes for the coming year. 

Under New's conducting, the orchestra surpassed itself, bringing absolute security to even the most rhythmically difficult passages in this work for which sudden Covid-19 restrictions in Wellington had drastically shortened the rehearsal period. Overall, this was a performance of rare interest and had incredibly moving moments, especially in the contributions of Boynton and Tikao, as well as some exciting propulsive moments in Farr’s score. The combination of Western orchestral tradition and the traditional culture of this land proved fascinating and a worthwhile contribution to New Zealand’s orchestral repertoire.