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Orchestra enjoys tipping the scales

It was a slightly diminished band of RSNO musicians that disembarked from the Emirates Boeing 777 from Dubai to Glasgow yesterday morning.

A few of the orchestra had elected to add some holidays to the end of the national orchestra's first tour to China, either in Hong Kong or elsewhere in the Far East.

But for the bulk of the party, that last long flight was the final part of 24 hours of travel that began on coaches to the ferry terminal in Macau and a boat to Hong Kong airport.

The Macau concert was notable not just for its much more familiar feel, but also for the presence in the audience of Klaus Heymann, boss of the Hong Kong-based Naxos budget price recording label, with which the orchestra has had an ongoing relationship. With a return visit to China by the orchestra already being openly discussed, any further fruits on the recording side would be the icing on the cake for a tour that can only be judged an overwhelming success.

The RSNO's communications manager Danny Pollitt was emerging from the Beijing underground network at Tiananmen Square last week, en route to visiting the Forbidden City, when a young woman with impeccable English asked him if he was with the Scottish orchestra playing in the city's new concert hall that night.

That incident was indicative of the level of consciousness there was in certain strata of Chinese society about this 95-strong team of cultural ambassadors who had travelled to the other side of the world with a taste of a Scots New Year. The new Chinese middle class, whose cars now fill roads and for whom new apartment blocks are springing up everywhere, are clearly much more open-minded than their ancestors and keen to embrace Western music and lifestyle while maintaining a fierce national pride.

There is also a clear sense that the authority of the state is no longer quite as feared. The orchestra's coach journey to Beijing airport for the flight to Macau was delayed by a mass protest of hundreds of taxi drivers, angered by a new law introduced at the start of the year that imposed stiff penalties for running an amber light. On the day the RSNO flew home, journalists in Guandong province, where the musicians had played three of their six concerts, held a strike and demonstration against censorship. And at every one of the concerts, even in Beijing, staff tried in vain to restrict the use of camera phones when the members of the National Youth Pipe Band joined the orchestra.

Tickets for the concerts were not cheap – the equivalent of well over £100 for the best seats in all venues – and had risen substantially since the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra made its first visit to China in November 2000. But all of the concerts were well attended and a couple completely sold out.

While exotic meals were oft-mentioned highlights as well as the music, for almost all of the players it was the sheer scale of everything in China that impressed most. Between those two visits by Scottish orchestras the population of every city the RSNO visited in mainland China has grown by a number more or less equivalent to the total population of Scotland.

Given that context, it is astonishing that the orchestra made the impression it did wherever it went. But what is undeniable is that no-one who was in the Shenzhen hall to hear conductor Peter Oundjian direct the players in wishing the audience "Xin Nian Kuai Le", and the audience reply with a "Happy New Year" in English will ever forget the way they welcomed the start of 2013.

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