An Ojibway flute player will play a piece rooted in Maori legend | The music

The story of “Kotuku” has twists and turns, but they’ll all be on stage at the Capitol Theater on Friday night.

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

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

Ojibway flautist Darren Thompson rehearses before Friday’s premiere of Christopher Blake’s “Kotuku” by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. Commissioned by OMD 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 of the natural world, will improvise his solos around the room to evoke the graceful spirit of the bird.

“I let the energy of the music inspire me,” he said. “I’m really just settling things. This is the purpose of my role. The (orchestral) music builds and builds, and becomes 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 sculpted with symbols of nature and colored with natural earth pigments.


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

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

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

Andrew Sewell with Darren Thompson

Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra music director Andrew Sewell, left, and Darren Thompson review the score for Christopher Blake’s ‘Kotuku’ before a rehearsal at the Capitol Theater.


“Accepting that, and not quite sure what to do with it, I sat down one night and rewrote the ending, giving it a very public funeral with all the stuff on display,” she said. “It’s a film about predation. It’s a soft film, nothing graphic, but it shows a multicultural and multigenerational story.

“It’s really to bring awareness to the intricacies of grief,” she says. “And how the best parents can miss those signals.”

Kotukus aren’t commonly seen, but in New Zealand to make the film in 2019, “We actually spotted one,” Andrew Sewell said. “It flew directly above us. It was quite important. It was just a project that seemed to have a life of its own.

Andrew Sewell as Director

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


Later, looking for a flautist to perform in the play, the Sewells had heard of Thompson and, when asking about him in the Lac du Flambeau area last August, they met one of family friends of Thompson. The musician soon learned that the OMD was interested in speaking to him.

Thompson, who grew up in Lac du Flambeau and is now a reporter for Native News Online in Minneapolis, 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 in countless performances, including at the dedication 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 the flute during OMD rehearsal

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


Thompson initially thought the OMD wanted him to perform “Kotuku” because he’s known for his iconic flute, sculpted to look like a crane, he said. But this flute is tuned to the key of F sharp, and for “Kotuku” he needed one in the key of E minor.

“There are others playing that flute in Wisconsin,” Thompson said. But performing in the premiere of “Kotuku,” he said, “what an honor.”

“Kotuku” is part of an OMD concert which also includes Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 1 with violinist Eric Silberger, as well as other works. “Kotuku” will open the evening.

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