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Agenda-setting display of talent

Some years, Celtic Connections announces its arrival with the premiere or one-off performance of a commissioned composition; other times, the opening night marks a programming coup as a global star steps onto the Glasgow stage.

Nicola Benedetti performs at the Celtic Connections Opening Concert
Nicola Benedetti performs at the Celtic Connections Opening Concert

Curated themes have also worked well but, in its 21st incarnation, the 2014 Opening Concert effectively became a showcase for everything Celtic Connections can be, skipping across continents and genres with confidence and demolishing any lingering doubts that we now have one of the world's major music festivals on our very doorstep.

Indeed, this wasn't just an introduction to what Celtic Connections has on offer this year, but what we can expect from Glasgow as a whole in 2014 - specifically the buzzwords "Commonwealth" and "Homecoming", albeit interpreted here with looser musical definitions.

Fiddler Duncan Chisholm got things under way in a four-person set-up that moved effortlessly from swagger to misty melancholy, lifted high at one point by the almost jazz-rock bent notes of a Jarlath Henderson Uilleann pipes solo.

Virtuosic skills were also in evidence during Jacob Jolliff's solo mandolin runs in Joy Kills Sorrow's short set. The Boston-based string band also feature a belter of a husky rock voice in the shape of Emma Beaton (whose Scottish parents had travelled from her native Canada to be here), but it was the tight, fast, edgy strum of Jolliff's mandolin backing that gave their sound an alt-rock dimension.

Star of the show was Nicola Benedetti, stepping out of her classical domain and into the world of Scottish folk music. There were no airs and graces - she humbly acknowledged that she was a beginner, albeit one with Aly Bain as mentor - but her playing of Scott Skinner traditionals and Phil Cunningham originals was glorious.

Her violin had a deeper, more resonant tone than your average fiddle - more concert hall than fireside session - but her attack on the fast tunes and natural feeling on slower sequences had folk culture in their roots. The classical/folk crossover cadenza she inserted into the set was a stroke of genius, and her interplay with Julia Fowlis's Gaelic vocals created a beautiful meeting place for homegrown talent from different points on the musical map.

If Benedetti imbued the concert with a sense of occasion, the second half didn't let slip. From Malawi, Peter Mawanga and the Amaravi Movement proved that what gets classified as "world music" may essentially only be the social conscience of folk music delivered in a foreign language. From North Uist, Julie Fowlis allowed the audience an aural peek at her forthcoming album, which includes a lovely Sorley MacLean poem set to music by Donald Shaw.

From Quebec, the irrepressible figure of Yves Lambert (with his foot-stomping Trio) added flamboyant character to the cast list. From Nashville - an extra to the published line-up - Beth Nielsen Chapman reunited with some of the Scots she has recently been sharing studio time with, and ripped through Nothing I Can Do About It Now, the song written by her that Willie Nelson took to number one.

The concert ended as it should: a 16-strong, mixed-nationality ensemble playing a Quebecois dance followed by a duet between Benedetti and Cunningham. Commonwealth and Homecoming, yes; but in referendum year, no overt politics. Not that an opening concert like this needs any: international in outlook, proud of its own talent, and leading from the front, this was a robust cultural statement in itself.

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