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Scottish orchestra brings in a Chinese New Year

When the new year dawns, one of Scotland's national companies will not be at its usual post, preparing to perform Handel's Messiah in Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.

Instead, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO )will be on the other side of globe, playing over the bells in Shenzhen Concert Hall, in the second of two concerts that evening.

The RSNO leaves Glasgow tomorrow for its first tour of China, the New Year's Eve performances following one in Guangzhou on Sunday. The itinerary then takes in the National Centre for the Performing Arts in the capital, Beijing, followed by concerts in Tianjin and Macau.

They are not, strictly speaking, breaking new ground – the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra did that in November 2000 when they played the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square as well as in Shanghai and Guangzhou – but the RSNO's visit is nonetheless of huge significance. It is the orchestra's first Asian tour and comes at a time when the eyes of the world are on China and the media is full of statistics illustrating the changes in the country over the past decade.

The orchestra's chief executive Michael Elliott is absolutely clear about the value of the tour.

"It hits government agendas and is a good opportunity to put us right up there in their thinking. We will be making an impact on behalf of Scotland."

That role will be shared with the people of Britain as well as the Chinese when television footage from the Shenzhen Concert Hall is part of the BBC's Hogmanay broadcast back home. "And that's an important celebration here to be part of," adds Elliott.

The dates have come together in remarkably short order compared to how things usually work in the classical world. It was an RSNO priority that a high-profile tour was arranged early in the tenure of new music director and principal conductor Peter Oundjian, and these concerts have been arranged by British-based touring agents, Intermusica, following the orchestra's concert with China's Three Tenors at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh at the beginning of August this year.

Formed in 2011, 10 years after an appearance in Beijing by the original Three Tenors – Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras – this trio united China's most celebrated tenor voices, Dai Yuqiang, Wei Song and Warren Wah-lun Mok, all highly influential men in their own national music scene.

Dai Yuqiang was Pavarotti's first and only Chinese student, while Wei Song is known in the People's Republic as China's Pavarotti and is vice president of the Shanghai Opera House. Warren Wah-lun Mok, from Hong Kong, has a distinguished career as one of China's top opera singers as well as being artistic director of the Macau International Music Festival and founder of Opera Hong Kong.

They began a world tour in Beijing and declared the accompanying musicians for their Scottish date to be the best they had appeared with. Their active interest in the RSNO means this trip is unlikely to be the only visit the orchestra makes to the Far East. The fact it has proved impossible to arrange an appearance in Shanghai on this tour – "we pushed very hard, but the promoters and venues all had other commitments," says Elliott – only makes a return more likely.

The music the orchestra is taking to China offers a comprehensive flavour of Scotland, Britain and the European New Year classical taste for the waltzes, marches and polkas of Strauss. The good people of Shenzhen will be able to spend their Hogmanay hearing a repeat of the Guangzhou concert featuring Mendelssohn's "Scottish" Symphony, Elgar's Enigma Variations and An Orkney Wedding (with Sunrise) by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies from 7pm, and then an 11pm concert during which Strauss and Khachaturian will rub shoulders with Highland Cathedral and Auld Lang Syne. Orkney Wedding will feature piper Iain Crawford and the touring party includes six members of the National Youth Pipe Band of Scotland.

The programme, says Elliott, was a matter of negotiation. "We put up ideas and talk with venues. Not all accepted the programme we started out with. Macau wanted Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, so that is in for our final concert."

The local promoters have some latitude but still need political clearance at regional and national level for concerts. Britain's Halle Orchestra recently fell foul of that when a concert in China was cancelled at 24 hours' notice because the local promoter did not have the correct permissions.

"It is not always smooth sailing," admits Elliott. "We will have to show our mettle. It is easier for things to go wrong. But this tour is symptomatic of the ambition of the RSNO, alongside presenting a CD to every child born in Scotland or taking the whole orchestra to Shetland."

The China tour will also be something of personal fascination to Michael Elliott, who last visited the country in 1984 when he was a guest of the Chinese Government as a member of a peace delegation from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, of which he was national treasurer.

It seems unlikely that any of the current regime of Xi Jinping will remember that occasion, but they should certainly be aware of the upcoming visit by the RSNO

Elliott says the streets in the cities the orchestra will be visiting have already been "blitzed with posters".

Conductor Peter Oundjian also made a special return trip to Glasgow last week for three days of intensive rehearsal of the music that they will play.

Fortunately, the Viennese music will have a second outing, at Carnegie Hall on January 12.

The one in Dunfermline.

The Herald's Art Editor Keith Bruce will be reporting from the RSNO's tour of China from January 1.

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