Ojibwe flute player to perform in piece rooted in Maori legend | Music

The story of “Kotuku” has twists and turns, but they all will come together on the stage of Capitol Theater Friday night.

“Kotuku” is the title of a 15-minute piece by Christopher Blake to be premiered by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, featuring the renowned Ojibwe flute player Darren Thompson.

The composition’s title refers to a solitary white crane found in New Zealand, the kotuku, known for its mystery and mythical status.

Darren Thompson

Ojibwe flute player Darren Thompson rehearses prior to Friday’s premiere of Christopher Blake’s “Kotuku” by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. Commissioned by WCO music director Andrew Sewell and his wife, Mary Anne Sewell, the piece was inspired by a film written by Mary Anne Sewell about two young sisters who were abused by a trusted family friend.

Thompson, playing a cedar wood flute carved with images from the natural world, will improvise his solos within the piece to evoke the graceful spirit of the bird.

“I’m letting the energy of the music inspire me,” he said. “I’m really just to settle things down. That is the purpose of my role. The (orchestral) music builds and builds, and gets oppressive and loud and then — I play.”

Close-up of flute

The cedar wood flute that Darren Thompson will play with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra is carved with symbols from nature and colored with natural earth pigments. 

“Kotuku” was commissioned by WCO music director Andrew Sewell and his wife, Mary Anne Sewell, both originally from New Zealand. The piece was inspired by a stirring film written by Mary Anne Sewell, “Let Your Sisters Be,” which subtly tells the story of two young sisters who were abused by a trusted family adult friend. Blake later wrote the music after viewing the film.

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Set in scenic New Zealand, “Let Your Sisters Be” weaves in images of a flying kotuku, which in Maori legend accompanies the wairua (spirits of the dead) back to the world of their ancestors.

The film, which can be viewed via the WCO website, “is a very personal story,” Mary Anne Sewell said. “It was never meant to be made. I wrote it in response to hearing that my childhood abuser had passed away an honored man. He had a high profile, and I guess he was buried with dignity.

Andrew Sewell with Darren Thompson

Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra music director Andrew Sewell, left, and Darren Thompson look over the score for “Kotuku” by Christopher Blake before a rehearsal in Capitol Theater. 

“Coming to terms with that, and not quite knowing what to do with it, I sat down one night and re-wrote the ending, giving him a very public burial with all things exposed,” she said. “It’s a film about predation. It’s a gentle film, nothing graphic, but it’s showing a multicultural and multi-generational” story.

“It’s really to raise awareness about the subtleties of grieving,” she said. “And how the very best of parents can miss those cues.”

Kotukus are not commonly seen, but while in New Zealand making the film in 2019, “We actually sighted one,” Andrew Sewell said. “It flew directly over us. It was pretty significant. This was just a project that seemed to have a life of its own.”

Andrew Sewell conducting

Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra music director Andrew Sewell conducts a rehearsal in Capitol Theater. 

Later looking for a flute player to perform in the piece, the Sewells had learned about Thompson, and while asking about him in the Lac du Flambeau area last August ran into one of Thompson’s family friends. Word soon got to the musician that the WCO was interested in talking to him.

Thompson, who grew up in Lac du Flambeau and now is a journalist for Native News Online in Minneapolis, first fell in love with the sound of the Native American flute while a student at Marquette University. He bought his first flute and taught himself to play.

Since then he has combined his music and storytelling at countless performances, including at the grand opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, for the National Congress of American Indians and the North American Indigenous Games.

Darren Thompson playing flute during WCO rehearsal

Darren Thompson plays a traditional wooden flute during a rehearsal with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. 

Thompson first thought the WCO wanted him to perform “Kotuku” because he is known for his signature flute, carved to look like a crane, he said. But that flute is tuned to the key of F-sharp, and for “Kotuku” he needed one in the key of E-minor.

“There are others who play this flute in Wisconsin,” Thompson said. But to play in the premiere of “Kotuku,” he said, “What an honor.”

“Kotuku” is part of a WCO concert that also includes Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 1 featuring violinist Eric Silberger, as well as other works. “Kotuku” will open the evening.

Editor’s note: This story corrects the name of the film written by Mary Anne Sewell.