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Friday, May 10, 2013



This month the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra is performing Orpheus in Rarohenga, a stunning modern choral work by local composer John Psathas, both in Wellington (Friday 10 May) and Auckland (Saturday 25 May).

Based on an epic poem by Robert Sullivan, combining European and Polynesian mythology, the work covers James Cook’s exploration of the Pacific, his death in Hawaii and his journey into Rarohenga, the underworld. Originally commissioned in 2002 for the 50th anniversary of the Orpheus Choir of Wellington, the work has previously had only a single performance.
John Psathas was little known a decade ago, but subsequently composed the music for the opening ceremony of the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens and is now recognised as a leading 21st-century composer on the international stage. The work is typical of Psathas, with a large percussion section, jazzy rhythms and a battery of drums depicting armed conflict. The Orpheus Choir is singing in both performances.

When originally performed there were mutterings about the unflattering image of James Cook presented in Sullivan’s libretto. I am from a generation that was taught to believe in Cook’s virtues – that he was an exceptional navigator, treated his crew fairly and was responsible for the elimination of scurvy. Certainly Cook was regarded as humane in European eyes, but this was not the experience of native peoples as he travelled around the Pacific. While he preferred to negotiate for water and supplies rather than use force, his ships always carried a troop of marines armed with muskets, and Cook didn’t hesitate to use them if talking didn’t work, or if the ship or the crew were threatened.

Recent books such as Anne Salmond’s The trial of the cannibal dog and Joan Druett’s Tupaia paint a more realistic view of Cook’s impact on the communities he visited, both in terms of violence and the spread of disease. In 2013 Sullivan’s libretto is much more acceptable than it was a decade ago.

Te Papa currently has a large portrait of the Tahitian princess Poedua on display. Nicknamed the ‘Pacific Mona Lisa’, its romantic setting hides a darker side of how Cook ran his expeditions. While anchored off Raiatea two of Cook’s men deserted. He reacted quickly, abducting members of the local chief’s family and holding them hostage until the deserters were returned. Poedua was painted by John Webber while being held captive on board ship.

Near the end of his third voyage, Cook made landfall in Hawaii at Kealakekua Bay. He and his crew outstayed their welcome, and there were quarrels and pilfering by the Hawaiians. After one of the ship’s boats was taken, Cook tried to forcibly abduct a local leader as a hostage for its return. The landing party was overwhelmed, and Cook and four of the marines were killed. The events leading up to Cook’s death form the dramatic climax to Orpheus in Rarohenga.

To hear a sample work by John Psathas, HIT HERE

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