Music review: The RSNO - China Story, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

The Royal Scottish National Orchestra
The Royal Scottish National Orchestra
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Seldom can the Usher Hall stage have been so jam-packed with instruments – with myriad drums, gongs, bells and more teetering on the front, joined by an equally expansive percussion battery at the back of an oversize Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

Would that the audience seats had been so crammed. But anyone deterred by the thought of three unknown pieces by an equally unfamiliar Chinese contemporary composer – Xiaogang Ye – might have been surprised by how approachable, even tame, it all was. Ye’s a big name in China, holder of numerous influential positions and accolades, and kudos to the Orchestra for the concert’s bold, ambitious vision – even if its ultimate result was rather underwhelming.

RSNO: China Story, Usher Hall, Edinburgh ****

All that percussion was there for the evening’s opener, Mount E’mei, a double concerto for violin (a forthright Lu Wei) and percussion (an athletic Hu Shengnan, darting between instruments and conjuring a hall-shaking cadenza on her colossal set of drums). Although Ye’s orchestral parts felt too often like sumptuous but static aural backdrops, the RSNO dispatched them with utter conviction – and they had more to get their teeth into in his heavily perfumed, playful piano concerto Scent of the Green Mango, with Wan Jieni supplying a delicate solo part. Cardiff Singer of the World-winning bass-baritone Shenyang rather stole the evening, however, with his deep, rich, blissfully clear voice in a commanding performance of Ye’s introspective Song of Sorrow and Gratification. Conductor Gilbert Varga was on fine, alert form throughout, even if his Britten Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes that closed the first half felt strangely subdued.