It’s very exciting for me to spend the week rehearsing Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra with the Wroclaw Philharmonic. This was the piece, more than any other, that set me on the path that led me to where I am today. I still remember so vividly first hearing this music. Up until then I had been playing lots of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, all of which I adored, but as closely as I identified with the music, it was still clearly the music of a different era. Suddenly hearing Bartok’s Concerto, I heard my own era, the noise of cities, the buzz of electricity, the fear of the war and its terrible destruction, and still the hope for a better future which, amazingly, Bartok managed to maintain.
The music also highlights one music’s central paradoxes for me. This is some of the most emotional and moving music I’ve ever encountered. And yet, studying the score, one is presented over and over with abstract mathematical structures. As if to give future musicologists a hint into his compositional methods, the piece begins with a simple symmetrical motif. All starting at a single note, C, he adds the note a whole step above and a whole step below. Then another two notes are added, again in perfect symmetry, this time a major third above and a major third below. Then he squeezes these back in the opposite direction, returning to the note where they came from. All of this could be explained in simple math available to a toddler. (Admittedly, as things progress, things gets a bit more complex.) But the central mystery remains in my mind. How do these abstract structures, translated into musical pitches have such a profound emotional influence on us?