Not every conductor delivers a pre-concert talk, but Perry So did just that, with unflappable charm, before the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's Chinese New Year concert.

He spoke fervently on Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony and, in performance, confirmed its status as a ground-breaking score that, amongst other things, inspired Bruckner's "cathedrals of sound".

The first movement caught the ebb and flow of the picturesque outdoors. The pace was sprightly; every detail registering with early-morning clarity.

In the second movement, the mood shifted to graceful contemplation; the dance of the third was all rollicking good humour, even if the occasional horn smudges went beyond the bounds of rustic scene-setting.

Beethoven's celebrated storm was unleashed in a furious outburst that seemed to emanate directly from the possessed young conductor.

Before the concert, So was guarded about Xian Xinghai's Yellow River Concerto. And, if this work did, as he suggested, give us the chance to "look back through the window of history," then it lays out a rather depressingly drab and sad vision.

In short, it is a dismal, committee-written affair, serving up fourth-rate pastiches of Rachmaninov and the like to the miserably oppressed musical community of China.

Nevertheless, the conductor and musicians gave it their all, with pianist John Chen transforming vacuous virtuosity into cascades of New Year fireworks and firing double octaves with the accuracy of an ace marksman.

Ross Harris' The Floating Bride, The Crimson Village, a song-cycle based on Vincent O'Sullivan's poetic commentaries on Chagall paintings, proved the high point of the concert.

Few of our composers have Harris's skill in writing music that is so deeply infused with the spirit of what has gone before. The sweep of the line may hearken back to German late romanticism, but the delicacy and wit of the scoring is French-influenced.

Soprano Jenny Wollerman sang with pinpoint accuracy and a sense of true bonding with the O'Sullivan texts. If the occasional phrase might have benefited from a touch more legato, there was no denying the jewel-like beauty of each note that the composer had entrusted to her.

What: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Where: Auckland Town Hall

When: Friday, February 3