Concert Review: 26th November 2016

Edward Cowie: Tide in Knots (new commission)

Elgar: Sea Pictures                                 

Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition


Great Hall, Lancaster University, Lancaster

Conductor: Justin Doyle

Soloist: Clare McCaldin

Leader: Julian Cann

The Haffner Orchestra was in top form for Saturday’s concert of music with a pictorial theme. Most interesting were the different approaches of the three composers: Elgar, Mussorgsky, and the composer and artist Edward Cowie – whose most welcome visit reminded us of those glorious days when Lancaster University had a music department (of which Edward was a staff member), and of when the orchestra was founded 40 years ago, hence this its celebratory season.


Elgar’s Sea Pictures is a song cycle that seeks to focus on the idea of the sea as a “watery grave”. Mussorgsky’s suite “Pictures from an Exhibition”, orchestrated by Ravel, is a classic example of programme music, inviting us to picture in our imagination the various works of Mussorgsky’s artist friend, Victor Hartmann. Very different is the approach of Cowie, who despite the doubly-punning title “Tide in Knots” of his newly-commissioned aubade which we heard, insists that his music does not imitate nature. In contrast (as emphasised in his pre-concert talk) for him, music originates from natural sounds. The piece was a sonic portrait of a spectacular early morning on Morecambe bay (the title refers to the great skeins of wading birds called knots). On the evening of the concert, we were able to view the drawings made by Cowie himself, which exemplify his method of employing “visualisations” leading towards musical compositions. 



We were indeed fortunate to hear Clare McCaldin whose voice was ideally suited to the varied and colourful style of Elgar’s setting of the five poems forming his song cycle. Appropriately, it was Clare’s father Denis McCaldin who ran the university’s music department for many years, and to whom was due the appointment of Edward Cowie in 1973. In this the last concert of Justin Doyle as Musical Director, we were once again gripped by his talent in evoking from this very able orchestra the huge variety of different effects required in a programme such as this. 


In this brief appreciation it would be unjust to name individual star players, but the nature of music with a pictorial theme did mean that the woodwind and brass tended to be prominent – in the Mussorgsky in particular, it would be hard to forget Ravels’s brilliant orchestration for bass clarinet, cor anglais, saxophone, and it was this work that brought to a resounding end the concert with the well-known “Great Gate of Kiev”.


Reviewed by H Montagu-Pollock