A return to the takiwa

Mark Taddei is excited to be conducting the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra’s Matariki concert. PHOTO:...
Mark Taddei is excited to be conducting the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra’s Matariki concert. PHOTO: DSO
The world’s first taonga pūoro concerto will be performed in Dunedin on Saturday as part of the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra’s celebration of Matariki.  Rebecca Fox talks to conductor Marc Taddei and vocalist and taonga pūoro player Ariana Tikao about the importance of the occasion. 

For Ko te tātai whetū to be performed in Dunedin is a coming home for the piece, which is based on a mōteatea  (traditional chant) that is in the Hocken Library.

That significance is not lost on its composer, Ariana Tikao, who based the concerto on kupu (sayings and/or messages) her great-grandfather, Teone Taare Tikao, a tribal scholar and Ngāi Tahu leader, wrote down and gave to Herries Beattie back in the 1920s. Beattie’s collection then ended up in the Hocken Library.

‘‘It feels quite special to be playing this piece again, particularly around this time of Matariki/Puaka. It is also a lovely connection to be performing it for the first time in Dunedin, as it is where the original manuscript is, that contains the lyrics of the waiata.

‘‘So I’m really looking forward to performing this piece again in the Kāi Tahu takiwā [region]!’’

It is also not lost on conductor Marc Taddei, who has the job of bringing together the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra (DSO) with Tikao and Alistair Fraser playing the taonga pūoro in Ko te tātai whetū but also the premiere of Maddy Parkins-Craig’s New Mountain, Gillian Whitehead’s Matariki and Gustav Holst’s The Planets along with soprano Rebecca Ryan and the women of City Choir Dunedin.

Taddei, who arrived back from the United States last week in time for rehearsals for this concert, says it is a privilege and exciting  to be leading the DSO in this concert combining Western music and instruments with taonga pūoro.

‘‘Holst’s Planets is one of the great orchestral showpieces. Everyone loves it. It is great fun to play and to conduct. I like the way the orchestra is using it as a foil to the contemporary works, it fits really well. Tonally and stylistically it is a nice programme. ’’

It will be Wanaka-based Taddei’s first experience conducting the combination and he is looking forward to it.

‘‘This work by Philip Brownlee and Ariana Tikao, what Philip has done is emulate and imitate the pitches and some of the stylistic ideas you can get from these instruments and there is a bit of an answering to and fro from the orchestra.

‘‘Ariana will be improvising and she’ll be taking her cues from maybe an oboe or a trombone depending on what instrument she is playing. I have heard a lot of these kind of compositions which meld the two instruments and I have to say what Philip has done with Ariana is without question one of the best I’ve heard.’’

Taonga pūoro players Ariana Tikao and Alistair Fraser will perform with the DSO. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Taonga pūoro players Ariana Tikao and Alistair Fraser will perform with the DSO. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Taddei and Tikao spoke in Wellington about the concert, before he headed to the United States for the last of his season’s concerts with his American Vallejo Symphony Orchestra.

‘‘There will be places she will cue me in and there will be places I’ll  cue her. What Philip has done is crafted a work that is very easy to put together in that regard.’’

The piece was originally meant to be a collaboration between veteran taonga pūoro player Richard Nunns and Brownlee but due to Nunns’ worsening health at the time he passed the opportunity on to Tikao, whom he had been mentoring. Nunns died in 2021.

‘‘He was still well enough to support us in the earlier stages, which was very precious and is why we dedicated the concerto to him,’’ Tikao says.

The piece relates to the sky being adorned with stars by Tane, so it seemed appropriate, she says.

‘‘I find the story of Hinetitama transforming herself into Hinenuitepo quite moving, and in the lyrics of the mōteatea  she is telling Tane to go back to earth and bring their children up and instructs him to go and place the stars in the sky. In this text I feel like she has such strength and agency. I feel it is important to revive such mōteatea  to bring them to new generations.’’

The piece is in three parts, the first  being the prequel story of how Hinetitama found out that Tane was both her husband and father, and leaves to go and live in the underworld, transforming into Hinenuitepo.

‘‘That first part to me is like storytelling; it is fairly slow and heartfelt. The second part is Hine’s instructions to Tane, like a massive ‘to-do list’, so it is rhythmic and a faster tempo more like a patere style.

The third part also lists stars and constellations, but is slower and more dreamy. To me it is the feeling of gazing up at the night sky, full of wonder at its beauty. There is more space here between each lyric, and then the taonga pūoro at the end is also quite light, and ends with the technique of playing putorino, which Richard Nunns called ‘‘sound icicles’’ which emulates the twinkle of stars.’’

Other taonga used in the piece are the pahu pounamu ‘‘Te Iriraki o Waitaiki’’, koauau and putatara and the percussionists in the orchestra contribute with tumutumu.

Fraser, who comes from Dunedin, will also play taonga pūoro in the concert to allow the taonga to be played while Tikao is singing.

‘‘At times we will both be playing taonga pūoro together, so that will add another dimension to the piece.’’

Tikao will also perform a new arrangement of her waiata Matariki  in celebration of the Māori  New Year, also known as Puaka in the South.

Soprano Rebecca Ryan. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Soprano Rebecca Ryan. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Playing off those pieces is Holst’s The Planets, which Taddei says is always enjoyed because of its mix of more aggressive movements with the light and frothy, as Holst gives voice to their astrological characters.

‘‘Mercury the winged messenger; Venus the bringer of love etc etc. So what he does with Mars, which the piece begins with in a compound meter of five-four, which is a kind of an unusual meter - it’s quite aggressive.

"It plays on this interval called the tri-tone, which back in the Middle Ages was called the devil in music and the Catholic Church said to church composers ‘you must stay away from this interval’. So he plays with this kind of sound.

"So after this incredibly aggressive opening you have Venus the bringer of love and it couldn’t be more different. It just gets better and better.’’

The reason it is so popular is the archetypal characters from mythology are very clearly described in the music, he says.

‘‘The scoring is extraordinary. It is written for a huge orchestra with a female choir backstage and they sing the ending of the work with the doors closing so it feels like you’re going out into the expanse of the universe at the end.’’

The Dunedin Town Hall’s organ, Norma, will also feature.

‘‘It’s a massive work at its loudest and also a very intimate work. Then finally one reasons why it’s so popular with the public and also so popular with Hollywood composers is because it is the work that launched 10,000 soundtracks.’’

Taddei last conducted the DSO last year for Beethoven’s Symphony No 6.

‘‘It was great fun. They’re a great orchestra, they sound good, they come prepared to work hard. And of course the Dunedin Town Hall is one of the very best in the world acoustically. It’s amazing.’’ 

rebecca.fox@odt.co.nz

To see:

DSO - "Celebrating Matariki - Whakanuia Matariki"
Dunedin Town Hall, 

July 2 from 7.30pm till 10pm

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