The season finale for the Music Garden this summer was a performance of Alec Roth’s Songs in Times of War. These are settings of poems by Du Fu translated by Vikram Seth. Du Fu was a Chinese court poet who lived through times (8th century CE) when millions died or were displaced by rebellion and civil war. Although more allusive than direct (most of the time), the poems are grim but have an elusive beauty which is reflected in Roth’s setting. Originally scored for tenor, guitar, harp and violin we got to hear a new version (by the composer) with violin replaced by erhu; a two stringed bowed instrument. Tnere’s no doubt in my mind that the erhu adds a really effective cross-cultural timbre that the violin version can’t quite match.
This wasn’t a performance of the whole work (almost…) due to time constraints but we did hear most of the songs. They were sung beautifully and, where appropriate, dramatically by Lawrence Wiliford (still recovering from COVID but one would not have guessed). His excellent diction made a written text entirely superfluous. The accompaniment was provided by PhoeNX Ensemble (Patty Chan – erhu, Sanya Eng – harp) with Michael Savona on guitar. These are extremely moving songs and the accompaniment evokes China without sounding at all cheesy or derivative. All in all, the usual helicopters etc aside, it was a fine way to spend a late summer afternoon and a fitting end to the season.
If I have piqued your interest, the piece is going to be performed in the spring as a free lunchtime concert in the RBA. Meanwhile there’s a really good recording of the original (violin) version featuring Mark Padmore on the Signum Classics label.
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