THE PLAYERS of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and their conductor Peter Oundjian ushered in the New Year with the familiar strains of The Blue Danube on Monday night, but the setting was far from traditional.
This was the brand new, bright red concert hall in the fast-expanding city of Shenzhen, southern China, decked out with crimson hangings, and fluttering with as many Chinese flags as there were Union Jacks.
With a kilted sextet from the National Youth Pipe Band of Scotland serenading astonished Chinese listeners as they arrived in the foyer, it felt like a little piece of Scotland had taken root amid the gleaming skyscrapers of one of China’s wealthiest cities. Oundjian’s musical mix gave the same feeling, combining impeccably stylish Viennese classics with rugged Scottish repertoire, and it had the concert’s large Chinese crowd gripped. That might have been down to the event’s novelty value, but any such thoughts were dispelled when the audience spontaneously rose to their feet for a hearty rendition of Auld Lang Syne – in Mandarin. It’s a song valuing friendship and good times in China, too, I was assured.
It was a Hogmanay like no other – as strange and startling as it was exciting. And it was the centrepiece of the RSNO’s five-stop tour of China, which kicked off on 27 December and also took in Guangzhou and Beijing, and concludes with visits to Tianjin tonight and Macau on Saturday.
Two days before the New Year celebration concert in Guangzhou the RSNO performed a more serious programme of Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony and Elgar’s Enigma Variations, with Peter Maxwell Davies’s witty An Orkney Wedding, With Sunrise allowing Chinese listeners a close encounter with Scotland, as young piper Iain Crawford processed through the audience to the stage with bagpipes resounding.
For the orchestra’s chief executive Michael Elliott, the RSNO’s China tour is an important project at a time of change, marking both his arrival in August 2011, and also the first season from new music director Peter Oundjian. And according to Elliott it’s worked, boosting morale and confirming the orchestra’s place on the international stage. “We have a successful track record in Scotland, but we’re working in an international business, and to compete we have to be seen as good both at home and overseas.”
The tour’s destination chimes well with the Scottish government’s agenda encouraging links – both economic and cultural – with China. It’s a fact not lost on Elliott, although, as he points out, the Sino-Scottish relationship wasn’t the driving force behind the tour. “It’s a coincidence as far as I’m concerned, but to mount a tour like this, we need healthy support from the Scottish Government’s International Touring Fund, so I couldn’t have contemplated it if I knew it wasn’t going to be high on their agenda.”
Quite apart from the colour and spectacle of the concerts themselves – and the RSNO players and Oundjian have supplied plenty of both – behind the scenes, simply making a tour like this happen is a mind-boggling feat. Assistant stage manager Michael Cameron is one of the tour’s unsung heroes, with the responsibility of getting the orchestra’s instruments (everything from violins to double basses, harp and timpani) not only to China, but also from venue to venue once inside the country.
“I’ve done a lot of tours, but never one quite as extreme as this,” he says. After driving the equipment from Glasgow to London on Boxing Day, he saw it onto a cargo plane before himself hopping on a flight to Hong Kong, then following the precious items by bus, taxi and train to the first venue, the Xinghai Concert Hall in Guangzhou.
And that’s without taking into account the demands of China’s notoriously stringent bureaucracy. As Chinese promoter of the Guangzhou and Shenzhen events Hu Zhong Xi says, the government watches everything.
“In China, all commercial performances need to be approved by the Ministry of Culture – every concert, every programme, every conductor and soloist, every general manager of an orchestra. But things are getting easier – they won’t really disapprove unless you’re performing religious music, or unless it’s a group coming from Taiwan, Japan or Norway, where China has cultural tensions.”
Once in the country, it’s hard not to be aware that you should be following the rules. In one incident that raised a few smiles (and eyebrows), concert-hall ushers held aloft glowing green signs forbidding photography even while the RSNO were in full flight. On the up side, though, you might end up being passed between four or five ushers to ensure a safe journey from the foyer to your seat.
The RSNO’s concerts have drawn appreciative and enthusiastic audiences – as they should, with ticket prices far above what we’d cough up in Scotland. To get into the Shenzhen New Year gig, you’d have needed to find between £50 and £170 per ticket. But audiences seem not to be the super-rich. Most look like middle-class families with a genuine interest in what they’re hearing. And judging by the number of youngsters waving their arms around to the RSNO’s music, the next generation of Chinese musicians is likely to be, not pianists in the mould of superstar Lang Lang, but conductors.
The RSNO musicians, however, have been surprised by some of the audience’s more subdued responses. “We were warned that Chinese audiences weren’t that enthusiastic,” says violinist Susanna Lowdon, “and there’s been a bit of a reserved reaction when we play the Mendelssohn Scottish Symphony, for instance.”
But they put that down to unfamiliarity with the music. Violinist Paul Medd, however, voices an understandable frustration about a Scottish group playing overseas: “I sometimes think what we offer as a Scottish orchestra is a bit of a curse. It seems like we’re trying really hard with something like the Elgar Enigma Variations, to little reaction, but when we pull out something like Scottish reels the audience loves it immediately.”
It’s been an eye-opening experience for many in the orchestra on many cultural levels – from deciphering menus and quick lessons in Mandarin, to plucking up the courage for a bungee jump in a Guangzhou park.
For Michael Elliott, though, the RSNO’s China tour remains a hugely significant moment for the organisation: “It’s a big statement, and a big morale boost. Any tour is, but China particularly so. In some ways it’s a very traditional project that we’re bringing to China at New Year, but it still shows the ambition and innovation that we’re bringing to our music making.’