Friday, 18 October 2019

Music and Maths explored in the Oxford Philharmonic's innovative concert with Marcus du Sautoy

Marcus du Sautoy
Marcus du Sautoy
Music & Maths - Debussy Prélude de l’après-midi d’une faune, Stravinsky Symphony in Three Movements, Bartók Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, BB 114; Professor Marcus du Sautoy, Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra, Marios Papadopoulos; Saffron Hall
Reviewed by Colin Clarke and Carl Dowthwaite on 16 October 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Music and Maths, an exploration of the mathematics behind the music, a lecture with live music or a concert with extended introductions.

Under the title Music and Maths, Marios Papadopoulos and the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra presented a programme of Debussy, Stravinsky and Bartók at Saffron Hall on 16 October 2019 at which they were joined by Marcus du Sautoy who discussed each work in the programme from a mathematical point of view. This review is a joint one by a music reviewer, our regular contributor Colin Clarke, and a mathematician, Carl Dowthwaite.

Marcus du Sautoy is Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford. He also (rather reassuringly) holds the Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science. Linked to the latter is his first non-academic book, The Music of the Primes, which was followed by Finding Moonshine (the latter an exploration of symmetry in our lives), The Num8er Mysteries, What we cannot know and How to Count to Infinity, amongst others.

In this collaboration with the Oxford Philharmonic, Professor du Sautoy discussed each work from a number of perspectives, at the heart of which was the idea of the “secret garden” of maths. “Music is the pleasure the human mind experiences from counting without it being aware that it is counting” was the starting point, a quote from the Enlightenment polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz (1646-1716). As du Sautoy rightly pointed out, while mathematics is the science of patterns, music is the art of patterns. A scale is a pattern, and with his opening descent of his Prélude de l’après-midi d’une faune, Debussy issues a challenge to composers to think again about how we conceptualise musical language.

The basis of Western musical language is the overtone series (beautifully illustrated via a volunteer from the audience and a skipping rope plus instruments of the orchestra). How we divide the scales in the way we do was du Sautoy’s starting point. This journey that took us from Pythagoras all the way to the Modes of Limited Transposition: Number One, the whole-tone scale, is very much part of Debussy’s language (think the opening four bars of “Voiles” from the first book of Préludes, for example); the octatonic scale, the second Mode of Limited Transposition, has huge importance in Stravinsky, including in the piece we heard, the Symphony in Three Movements. And with this, the importance of patterns was brought to our attention.


The performance of the Debussy was characterised by clarity and a sense of stretching space: phrases arched sometimes from the depths to the heights. The opening flute solo was languorously played by Tony Robb; elsewhere in the winds, there were superb, warm-toned and expressive contributions from the Principal Oboist, Joe Sanders. Attention to detailing was everywhere in evidence; the dovetailing between a pair of flutes, for example, so expertly managed. The slightly dry acoustic of Saffron Waldon’s Saffron Hall aided the clarity, surely a bonus in an explicatory situation such as this.

Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements was given a disciplined performance in terms of rhythm and pulse (elements vital to any successful Stravinsky performance), clearly well rehearsed in terms of the highlighting of lines. Completed in 1945 and dedicated to the Philharmonic Symphonic Society of New York, it was premiered in January 1946 with the composer at the helm. The work poses huge challenges to an orchestra, and perhaps there was a touch of the careful about this account at times; the key to this piece is the excitement generated by Stravinsky’s rhythmic processes, while the melodic/harmonic component adds another element to Stravinsky’s signature. While the first movement could have carried more excitement, there was elegance and grace to the central Andante (the flutes in particular a source of joy). The finale was the best aspect of the performance, with appreciably more energy than the first, and it was here that one really felt that Stravinky’s harmonies have an internal life of their own.

Post-interval, Bartók’s magnificent Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta of 1936,, a Paul Sacher commission. It is a work not heard often enough in concert halls. With its carefully detailed layout, the antiphonal and spatial opportunities are fully realised by the composer. Here it was a quote from Stravinsky himself that furnished du Sautay’s starting point, of mathematics “swimming seductively just below the surface”. And here it was the Fibonacci sequence that was highlighted, a sequence in which each number is the sum of the two preceding ones. Attributed to Fibonacci of Pisa (also Leonardo of Pisa), Du Sautoy pointed out it was actually found in the work of the Indian Jain scholar Acharya Hemachandra (1088-c1171), who described the sequence in 1150, about half a century before Fibonacci. The sequence was described by Du Sautoy as “Nature’s favourite numbers” due to their ubiquity in the biological world. We heard a rhythmic demonstration of it by quoting the xylophone opening of the third movement of Bartók’s score, where the rhythm takes the form ‘1:1:2:3:5:8:5:3:2:1:1”, a “palindrome” based on the Fibonacci sequence; even the way chordal structures in the piece can be derived from the sequence was touched on.

Papadopoulos was at his finest in the tissue-delicate tapestry of polyphony of the first movement (Andante tranquillo); moments of string scrappiness in the second movement Allegro were exacerbated by the analytical acoustic. Yet the players still found a rather nice dance-like element here. Luxury casting for the timpani contributions to that third movement Adagio (Tristan Fry), and certainly no complaints there, the timpani glissandos perfectly judged. This movement was almost otherworldly, and certainly a haven of peace. There was certainly no shortage of energy for the finale, with some fine contributions from the Oxford Philharmonic’s pianist, Shelagh Sutherland.

All in all a great success: the coupling of education (superbly- and approachably - provided by du Sautoy) and enthusiastic performances is a powerful one and absolutely to be celebrated. Marios Papadopoulos is clearly devoted to his orchestra, and they to him. The overall impression left was of being incredibly refreshed and stimulated.

The Oxford Philharmonia Orchestra (Photo Chris Gloag)
The Oxford Philharmonia Orchestra (Photo Chris Gloag)
Saffron Hall hosts a wide variety of concerts: interesting to see Paul Lewis there on Sunday October 13, playing the programme he delivered the very next evening at the Festival hall. Sunday October 19 brings Gabriel: An Entertainment with Trumpet starring Alison Balsom with the English Concert and Harry Bickett; the LPO under Jurowski With Julia Fischer as soloist in the Britten Violin Concerto was a notable recent event. As to the Oxford Philharmonic, October 31 sees them in Cheltenham and November 2 in Oxford, both with Sheku Kanneh-Mason as soloist.
Reviewed by Colin Clarke & Carl Dowthwaite
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