(L to R): Hone Bailey and Ataahua "Ata" Papa perform. (Sam Kittner/Sam Kittner)

For many of us, New Year’s has receded into hazy memories of emptied champagne bottles and long-lapsed resolutions. But for performer and Maori culture expert Ataahua Papa, the holiday looms brightly ahead in the form of Matariki, the Maori New Year. The timing of that observance is hooked to the rising of the Pleiades in New Zealand, where the Maori are the indigenous people. “A lot of our culture was based on the stars and the phases of the moon,” Papa explains.

This year, Matariki falls at the end of June, Papa says, so she’ll be in buoyant spirits when she performs at the June 18 Pacific Day festivities at the New Zealand Embassy. An annual event, Pacific Day celebrates the culture and experience of Fiji, Guam, Hawaii, the Marshall Islands, Palau, Australia and many other nations and territories bathed by the eponymous ocean. The schedule includes a policy seminar and a reception where attendees sample regional cuisine and watch and listen to performances. The 2014 roster of entertainers includes an Australian didgeridoo player, and singers and dancers from American Samoa, the Federated States of Micronesia, and Papua New Guinea.

Papa, who has assisted with Pacific Day before, says she and two other Maori artists will interpret Maori songs and perform the haka, a traditional Maori war dance that Papa says is used in a variety of contexts as a gesture of support, a welcome or farewell, or a way “for somebody to psyche themselves up.” (New Zealand’s All Blacks rugby team is known for performing a version of the haka.) “The performance of it is quite fierce and strong-looking: It involves what they call ‘pukana,’ which is making the eyes big and poking out the tongue,” she says.

Papa has been immersed in Maori music and dance since her childhood on New Zealand’s North Island. Because the traditional arts were such a huge part of the culture, “we were encouraged to be in performing groups almost from the time that we could walk,” she says. She came to the United States in the 1990s with Kahurangi Maori Dance Theatre, and later settled in New York City. From that base, she continues her work to expand awareness of Maori arts, language and heritage. She says she recently even performed a dramatic reading of part of “Beowulf” translated into Maori.

Pacific Day is an invitation-only event, though according to a New Zealand embassy spokesperson the seminar — which, this year covers issues including renewable energy, climate change, and fisheries — will be lived-streamed. That would be something to help policy wonks, at least, while away the hours in the countdown to Matariki.

Concert over controversy

To get the geopolitical controversy out of the way first: Acclaimed Russian pianist Denis Matsuev says he does not regret signing a document that voiced support for President Vladimir Putin’s position on Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The document, which was published in mid-March on the Web site of Russia’s Ministry of Culture, and which also endorsed Putin’s stance on Ukraine in general, attracted signatures from world-famous conductor Valery Gergiev, Bolshoi Theatre general director Vladimir Urin and other members of Russia’s artistic elite, prompting some dismay within and outside the country.

However, Matsuev — e-mailing from Kazan, Russia, in advance of his June 17 performance at Strathmore — said he wants “music to be heard in Ukraine, not gunshots” and maintained that his signing of the document reflected this peaceable attitude. The “clear essence” of the text was the assertion of “friendship between our Brotherly Nations,” which have “common historical and cultural roots and destiny,” he argues, pointing out that his own mother hails from Kiev. “I can imagine neither my life nor my creative work without Ukraine, without my Ukrainian audiences,” says Matsuev, who was recently named a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador.

Those who know the 39-year-old Matsuev better for his tickling of the ivories than for his connection to an international border conflict will be aware that he’s a virtuoso who has ascended to the classical music stratosphere since winning the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1998. In 2006, the Post’s Tim Page called him “an absolute powerhouse of a pianist, capable of vanquishing the most technically demanding music in the repertory.”

A native of the Siberian city of Irkutsk, Matsuev has developed an affinity for the oeuvre of Rachmaninoff. He was tapped by a foundation established by the composer’s grandson to record Rachmaninoff’s unpublished works, using the composer’s own piano. Playing the instrument was “an absolutely incredible feeling,” he recalls.

He will play Rachmaninoff’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor at Strathmore: It’s a piece he feels is “epochal.”

His Strathmore program will also include Haydn’s Piano Sonata in E-flat, Schumann’s “Carnaval,” and more. Perusers of the lineup should not be deceived into thinking that Matsuev’s musical interests stop at gilt-edged classical scores: He’s also a serious jazz enthusiast and says the trust in spontaneity that jazz inculcates has enriched his interpretation of classical music.

“Jazz is more than just playing music,” he says. “It is a way of life” that is inspirational “in ordinary life and on the stage.”


Wren is a freelance writer.

Pacific Day 2014

June 18. By invitation only. For more about Maori performing arts, visit www.newzealand.com/us/feature/ kapa-haka-maori-performance.

Denis Matsuev
June 17 at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. Call 301-581-5100 or visit www.strathmore.org.