Of the run of New Year concerts in the warm acoustics of the wood-panelled Pearl River-side concert hall in the city once known as Canton – including Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic and the Guangzhou Symphony with the unlikely soloist of saxophonist Kenny G – it is very likely that the one given by Scotland's national orchestra to open its first tour of China will be the most discussed.
The RSNO's secret weapon is the co-option of half a dozen members of the National Youth Pipe Band, whose role in proceedings builds during a beautifully constructed programme. Conductor Peter Oundjian's measured opening to Mendelssohn's Third Symphony, the "Scottish", set the tone for an evening of riches with the composer's evocation of our landscape treated as a flowing Romantic narrative. That perfect poise was echoed later in an account of Elgar's Enigma Variations that showed how the internal balance of every section of this orchestra makes up the success of the whole ensemble under Oundjian's baton.
Between those pieces came Sir Peter Maxwell Davies's kaleidoscopic composition, An Orkney Wedding, With Sunrise, as colourfully played as it can be, guest leader Zsolt-Tihamer Visontay's drunken violin solo accompanied by a deliciously seasonal pantomime with a whisky bottle. When solo piper Iain Crawford appeared from the back of the hall at the climax of the piece, every head turned in surprise – and delight.
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He was then joined on stage by his pipe band colleagues for Kevin McCrae's arrangement of Phil Cunningham's Cathcart, an astute revival of a decade-old piece that led into further encores of Eightsome Reels and a very effective new setting by Glyn Bragg of Auld Lang Syne that also begins with the pipes before the orchestra swells in.
The Chinese audience not only clapped along as instructed. They sang lustily too.