Taking a stroll in the White Cloud hills is the thing to do of a pleasant Saturday in Guangzhou, the capital city of Guangdong province in southern China.
The wooded hills have more than 30 peaks and have been famous as a resort since the Tang dynasty in the early part of the last millennium. Where once they were places of spiritual retreat, with temples and monasteries, few traces of that time remain, and more secular attractions for adults and children have been created, all linked by paved walkways. A golf course and an adventure playground are just the sort of things you might expect to find at such a facility in the West. A singing platform – from which a chap with a backing track, a microphone and flip chart leads about 100 souls in a spot of community vocalising – is more unusual, although not so far from our own panto tradition.
Last Saturday was, for the most part, just such a day and the throngs of Chinese – family groups, knots of teenagers and single elderly people of both sexes taking some exercise – were joined by a good number of rarely seen Western faces. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra's hotel accommodation in Guangzhou, the base for three days of the first visit to China by the musicians and their new music director, Peter Oundjian, is in the bustling north of the city, where the Dickensian juxtaposition of a growing economy and a vast population of people eking out a bare living is only too apparent. It is some considerable distance from the tree-lined boulevards down by the Pearl River, where they will have the only full rehearsal of the tour and play their first concert at the Xinghai Concert Hall, but very handy for the White Cloud hills, so many of the orchestra members and staff head toward its highest peak, Star Touching Hill, on the one free day they have over the New Year period to recover from the long journey from Glasgow by way of Dubai.
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Less than halfway on the trail to the summit, above one of the many precipitous gorges between the hills, a platform for bungee-jumping stretches out over the valley. The orchestra's Director of Planning, Gale Mahood, is the brave soul who is prepared to be strapped into the harness and plunged down towards the trees hundreds of feet below. At 150RMB (£15), the experience, is, she reckons, after she has bounced a few times waving back for the cameras of the players, a bargain. There is probably something important to it about staff/player relations as well. It had not gone unnoticed that the RSNO backroom folk had managed to score an upgrade to first class on the first and longest leg of the long flight out on Emirates Airline by virtue of being the earliest arrivals at Glasgow Airport.
The internal politics of the national arts company are largely a side issue when a big band like the RSNO is on tour. There is no doubt that everyone is pulling together to the same goal of bringing the best performances to their new audience. But it is hard to escape the fact that this is to some extent a honeymoon in the relationship that Oundjian has soon forged with his Scottish orchestra. Popular though his predecessor Stephane Deneve was with the public, there were strains in his relationship with the musicians towards the end of his tenure. Oundjian, on the other hand, seems to be universally liked, and the success of this tour is very important to him too. At the start of that three-hour rehearsal in Guangzhou, he simply says to the orchestra: "One of the most important things we can do is to tour and share our love of the music." Murmurs of agreement become a chorus of approval when he adds: "And when we get back to the hotel after the late concert in Shenzhen tomorrow, the first drink is on me."
A lot has to be covered in this one rehearsal. Before Christmas, Oundjian had spent three days in Glasgow with the orchestra working on the repertoire for the tour, but that now seems an age ago to the players, most of whom have arrived early at the hall to refamiliarise themselves with instruments they haven't seen since they were crated for shipping out to the Far East. The orchestra's stage manager, Michael Cameron, has arrived in Guangzhou having supervised their unloading at the airport in Macau, where the tour will end today. After the trucks had set off to the Xinghai concert hall, he had taken a ferry, a bus, two trains and a couple of taxis to reach the first venue, where he had had to wait for the vehicles to be allowed to come into the city after the rush hour traffic had subsided. His schedule of transportation, get-ins and load-outs over the tour leaves little time for sleeping, far less strolls in the hills.
Oundjian is anxious that some work is done on the one-off programme that will be played in the Shenzhen concert from 11pm on Hogmanay. That is the only time that its unlikely particular mix of Viennese waltzes and Scottish traditional music will have an airing on the tour, and some attention is given to Kevin McCrae's arrangement of Phil Cunningham's tune for the Scottish Power Pipe Band, Cathcart, as well as to Johann Strauss the younger's Overture to Die Fledermaus, Voices Of Spring and On The Beautiful Blue Danube. His approach to the popular Austrian music is to insist on fluidity and lightness of touch, singling out telling phrases and individual notes for attention. "Invite us to the dance," he instructs the players.
However, there is nothing pretentious about Oundjian's rehearsing approach, which is very much about "taking care of business", as they say in Nashville: calm, brisk and efficient. Amusingly, the only time he is in less than complete control is when the rehearsal moves to the piece that the orchestra will play most often over the next few days, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies's An Orkney Wedding, With Sunrise.
At its climax, a lone piper joins the orchestra and 16-year-old Iain Crawford, one of the six representatives of the National Young Pipe Band of Scotland who have joined the RSNO on the tour, will do so from the back of each auditorium, surprising the audiences by appearing behind them. The timing of this is crucial, and if Oundjian is not immediately certain how it will work, Crawford has it all worked out. Although he has not so much as paced it out, he arrives from the back of the stalls to the steps at the side of the stage at precisely the moment the string players join in the melody he is playing. It is a trick he repeats not just at the concert but twice in an entirely differently configured venue in Shenzhen the following night, despite the added distraction of a pretty usherette in a red uniform coat taking it upon herself to guide his way.
The young staff in the halls are an interesting development in the classical concert scene in China. Gone are the militaristic uniforms of a decade or so ago, replaced by elegant suits and coats, but the fit-looking youngsters are clearly highly trained. This is as much in enforcing good concert behaviour as in helping folk find their seats. When the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra visited China in 2000, it was not unusual for people to chat during concerts, even answering and continuing phone conversations. That happens once in Guangzhou, more visible in that the young woman is sitting in the organ gallery behind the players, and is swiftly stopped. Another young woman who tries to record An Orkney Wedding on her iPhone is also quickly spotted and stopped.
But at Shenzhen, the intervention of the ushers and usherettes becomes more distracting than the behaviour of the audience, as they rigorously enforce a ban on photography. Despite a staged photo-opportunity with the young pipers before the Hogmanay concert when they play in the foyer earlier (and are completely mobbed), there is no chance that camera phones will stay in bags and pockets when the kilted young men appear on stage. Far from being cowed by being told off, many audience members just wait until hall staff backs are turned and try again. It is a small thing, but evidence of a more relaxed attitude to authority that is evident everywhere in China as the country moves into 2013.
Keith Bruce's reviews of the RSNO's concerts in China appear in daily editions of The Herald and at www.heraldscotland.com