If there is a wave of the future in classical music, the fusion of East and West will be one of its primary components. The world premiere of “Drinking Alone With the Moon” Friday night at the Darrows Barn of Round Top Farm in Damariscotta is a perfect example. It combines the best of both worlds to produce something new and exciting, without violating the traditions of either culture.
The work was composed by Wang Guowei (b. 1961), based on a poem by Tang Dynasty (618-954) poet Li Bai, better known in the West as Li Po. Li Po’s verses were also used by Gustav Mahler in “Das Lied von der Erde.”
The poem describes the poet drinking alone in a garden. Lonely, he calls upon the moon to join him, creating a shadow that he can dance with. Neither is much company, but they are better than drinking alone. He parts with them when he becomes drunk, but promises that they will meet again in the Milky Way.
Wang Guowei is a world-renowned virtuoso and composer for the erhu, a two-stringed instrument classed with Chinese spiked fiddles, and the most popular of the group. Fretless, with a long stem and a sound box covered with snakeskin, its tone has been described as “plaintive” but is quite indescribable in words. The small resonator gives it an intimate quality, like an insect buzzing in a bottle, but it is also capable of tremendous volume.
The composer joined Tim Fain, violin, and Sophie Shao, cello, in a performance that was so evocative of the poem that one could almost see the shadow dancing and the pale, remote moon “that does not know the joy of drinking.”
One of the most striking aspects of the new composition is how well the erhu blends with violin and cello, sometimes imitating, sometimes contrasting, but never producing a jarring chord.
The erhu is also capable of all kinds of exotic sounds, such as a characteristic seamless glissando, made possible because the neck of the instrument has no frets. Wang Guowei showed off its qualities in a final cadenza.
The composer introduced the audience to the versatility of the instrument in three shorter works by other Chinese composers, for solo erhu, erhu and cello, with Shao, and erhu and piano, played by Thomas Sauer.
Sauer, who replaced an injured Ignat Solshenitsyn, opened the program with a delightfully impressionistic “La Terrasse des audiences du Clair de Lune,” from Claude Debussy’s Preludes, Book Two.
After intermission, he joined Fain and Shao in a rousing performance of Maurice Ravel’s Piano Trio, another composition based upon poetic rhythms, but with an exuberance that goes far beyond drunkenness. The Ravel makes huge demands upon all the performers, but especially the piano. Since it began life as a concerto. Sauer’s work would have been outstanding, even if he had not been called upon at short notice.
Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be contacted at: