Maths never sounded so good before Saffron Hall concert

PUBLISHED: 14:04 21 October 2019

Marcus du Sautoy. Photo: CONTRIBUTED.

Marcus du Sautoy. Photo: CONTRIBUTED.


As a man walked along Saffron Hall’s stage, the audience started cheering the beginning of Music and Maths on Wednesday, October 16.

However, the man was not the conductor, as one might have expected, but one of the violinists.

"We clapped the wrong guy," someone whispered and the audience continued applauding as another man appeared. The new man could have shouted "you got the wrong man again" as he simply put the music on the stand for the conductor and went off stage as the conductor, Marios Papadopoulos, finally enjoyed the cheers awaiting for him.

Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra had perhaps the most unexpected and difficult repertoire of this Saffron Hall season. It might not be everyone's cup of tea on its own.

But, together with Marcus du Sautoy, University of Oxford Simonyi Professor for the public understanding of science, and his mathematical explanations, it was not only the music that was increasingly interesting, but also the maths. That was even for those of us who had given up on it as soon as we had the chance.

The professor said: "I fell in love with maths at 13, when I was starting at a comprehensive school, which didn't have a hall as good as this, so you are lucky.

"At the same time, I fell in love with music. I remember being asked what I would like to play as a musical instrument and I saw three trumpets on a shelf, so I took the trumpet.

"Trumpeters spend a lot of time counting bars, as I am sure they agree. There's more than just counting in both maths and music. Maths isn't about arithmetic, it's the science of patterns, and I think music is the art of patterns. That is the connection."

The first composition performed was Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune by Debussy, which the professor said had: "An opening which felt like a challenge to composers of this century."

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This is because of the chromatic movement that defines the piece, with the challenge to contemporary composers being to find new scales to play it.

Du Sautoy demonstrated several musical concepts, such as Stravinsky's octatonic scale embedded in the opening movement of Symphony in Three Movements.

The scale sounded unappealing on its own, but in this first part the piece had a sense of critical urgency, maintaining tension. The jabbing rhythms put me in mind of a fight sequence in a very old Hollywood film.

Du Satoy discussed the last composition of the night, Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, BB 114 as one of his favourite pieces.

He said that just like Debussy, Bartok also heavily used the Fibonacci sequence in his music - for scales, rhythms and the rate at which new instruments joined in. (The Fibonacci sequence, developed by a 13th century Italian mathematician, is where each number is the sum of the two preceding ones).

The professor said: "Fibonacci numbers are nature's favourite numbers", explaining that they occur in nature frequently.

"If you count the number of petals of your flower, they are a Fibonacci number. (A number which can be broken down into the Fibonacci sequence). "If it's not, it's because a petal has fallen off." The audience giggled.

In Bartok's composition, the numbers can be detected in the xylophone during the Adagio introduction. The piece was truly the highlight of the night, with an eerie atmosphere almost as if taken from a movie, a celesta added to the orchestra, and a stereo sound comprising of viola, then violin, then cello musically intervening, due to Bartok's very symmetrical arrangement.

There was a dialogue between the strings, left and right of the conductor, as they were impressively flowing into each other.

The best performer of the night was undoubtedly Spanish double bass player Uxia Martinez Botana. She is principal double-bassist at the Brussels Philharmonic and played passionately and confidently throughout the evening. Overall, the night was undoubtedly dominated by excellence.

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