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Terez Mertes


June 30, 2010 at 8:17 PM

Palindrome: noun, Greek origin. A word or sentence that reads the same forward as it does backward.

One of the things I’ve come to appreciate about my subscription to the San Francisco Symphony is the opportunity it provides me to sit and thoughtfully consider music I might never have chosen to listen to on my own. Case in point recently: Alban Berg’s Lulu Suite. Back in 1934, Berg had been working on his opera, Lulu, when the untimely death of Manon Gropius, daughter of Alma Mahler, prompted him to stop and write a violin concerto in her memory. Returning to his opera, he was unable to complete it before his own death in 1935, but he managed to extract excerpts to form Lulu Suite.

Atonal, or 12-tone music, is not my favorite. I tend to like the traditional fodder, the comforting hierarchy of pitches that focus on a single, central tone. It exhausts me, listening to all those notes on the chromatic scale, functioning independently of one another. It makes me think of a dozen toddlers in a too-small playroom: entertaining in small doses but ultimately disorienting.

An atonal opera, therefore, is not something that would normally have me hurrying to the ticket office. But the San Francisco Symphony programs their concerts cleverly. The lure of James Ehnes playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto in the second half was enough to fill Davies Symphony Hall that Saturday evening. Further, four of the five movements of Lulu Suite are instrumental, and the story within the opera is dramatically delicious in a way only opera can be. Lulu is an ambitious femme fatale, her sexual allure the downfall of many a man even as she herself makes a determined rise up the ladder of fortune. Later, however, her fortunes reverse and from there it is a free-fall of misfortune, sending her tumbling right back down that ladder.

There exists, midway in the opera, as well as in Lulu Suite, a deciding moment. A pause. An instant of silence from the orchestra, like a drawn breath, and then we hear a trio of notes from the piano. A silent exhale, and we hear the three notes in reverse.

Lulu’s rising fortunes are all about to mutiny.

And here comes the fascinating part. The score to the second movement, the “Ostinato,” is a palindrome. From this moment on, note for note will played out in reverse, just as Lulu’s loss of fortune brings her right back to where she came from, amid the dregs of society, living as a prostitute in London’s East End. And, more fascinating, musically, it all works. Beautifully so.

This, I have since discovered, is a trademark of Berg’s work, an unwavering commitment to musicality, form and symmetry in equal parts. It astounds me that the work can be crafted in such a calculated, intellectual fashion and yet still manage to sound lyrical, passionate, deeply affecting. And to do that through a palindrome? Whoa.

In the concert’s second half, James Ehnes’s performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto was all that I’d hoped it would be. Here there was nothing to decipher, no thinking required. I could simply sit back and allow myself to be transported by the genius and artistry of both composer and soloist. My high expectations were all met.

And yet now, weeks later, darned if it isn’t scandalous, abrasive Lulu and Berg’s palindrome genius that’s got me thinking, thinking, and smiling at the memory.


© 2010 Terez Rose


PS: For your brain-teasing pleasure, here are a few better-known palindromes. Feel free to contribute your own. I myself couldn’t come up with a single one.

A man, a plan, a canal: Panama.

Evil did I dwell; lewd I did live.

Are we not drawn onward, we few, drawn onward to new era?

Draw, O coward!

Lived on decaf; faced no devil.

Rise to vote, sir.

Was it a car or a cat I saw?

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on June 30, 2010 at 10:31 PM

 Well, I'm with you on the challenges of appreciating 12-tone music.  But you've got me very intrigued.  I'm now going to keep an eye (or ear) out for this piece!

From Terez Mertes
Posted on June 30, 2010 at 11:25 PM

I started listening to the Berg VC yesterday after doing a little research on it for this blog and wow, I really like it! I've had a copy of Frank Peter Zimmermann performing it and the Stravinsky VC and I've only been listening to the Stravinsky. Amazing what learning the story behind a piece of music does for the appreciation of the piece. I really didn't pick up before how haunting and lyrical Berg's music could sound. Particularly the last few minutes of it. Very much like a requiem, which calls to mind the Britten VC. (Which, again, I appreciated so much more once I heard the story behind it.)

From Tom Holzman
Posted on July 1, 2010 at 12:57 PM

Terez - as always, your blog is interesting and your insights impressive.  I am a limited fan of modern music, but I find that seeing it live tends to make it a bit more accessible (at least that portion of it which is accessible at all) than listening to it on CD.   And, Berg was an excellent composer.  So, I am not surprised you enjoyed it.  The Ehnes performance sounds divine.  How lucky you are to have gone to such a terrific concert.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on July 1, 2010 at 2:24 PM

 >I find that seeing it live tends to make it a bit more accessible (at least that portion of it which is accessible at all) than listening to it on CD.

Yes! I fell in love with the Britten VC in this way as well, hearing Midori perform it with the SFS. And again, the program notes gave tremendous color to the whole experience as well. Then there's Schmidt's Symphony no. 4 - another blow-away one that I would have never discovered, had not it been the opener for some bigger piece (I think it was Joshua Bell in the second half). Like I said, I think the SFS is very good about pairing old favorites with newer, less-heard music. 

I heard the Beethoven VC on the radio last night and it reminded me all over again how nice it was to hear James Ehnes's rendition. It really was a great night of music. Great way to end the subscription season. (And you can bet I renewed.)

From Kenneth Trotter
Posted on July 2, 2010 at 1:31 AM
Lulu is my absolute favorite opera. I think that the atonal idiom is a good fit for the story and the characters. I think that atonal music has the ability to express certain feelings that tonal music can't (or not as well); confusion, anger, etc.
From Terez Mertes
Posted on July 2, 2010 at 1:44 AM

 Kenneth - wow, how cool! So glad I expounded on it, then. Did you enjoy the whole palindrome aspect of the middle part? (I guess it's the Act II interlude that's the actual palindrome, but it sounds like Berg sort of played with the rest of it as well, having characters play multiple roles, one character in the first part, a different character later.)

As for me, favorite opera would have to be Carmen (who certainly sounds like a kindred soul to Lulu.)

Thanks for sharing your comments - great to hear from someone who knows the opera.

From Lisa Van Sickle
Posted on July 2, 2010 at 10:40 PM

Two other old standards:

Madam, I'm Adam

Able was I ere I saw Elba.

I enjoyed your take on Lulu.  Like many things, one wouldn't want a steady diet of it.  In moderation, at the right time and place, it's enjoyable.  Once one piece makes sense, another will, then another.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on July 3, 2010 at 2:22 AM

 >Once one piece makes sense, another will, then another.

Yes, that's very much the feeling I'm getting. I actually enjoy this part about more contemporary music. Little doses, and I learn, I enjoy, I stretch my comfort zone. Or it stretches me. : /

Thanks for the palindrome additions! I tried to be clever and work on one or two and quickly thought "forget it." But I do enjoy hearing the ones that get circulated. Here's  a cute one I saw on a palindrome website (which they prefaced by saying "this one doesn't count"):

Retteb skorw flah dnoces eht tub, but the second half works better.


From Laurie Niles
Posted on July 3, 2010 at 5:39 AM

 Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this opera -- and the results of your research! 

From Terez Mertes
Posted on July 3, 2010 at 9:36 PM

Thanks back atcha, Laurie. This site and all your efforts make my blogging possible. Oh, and must thank the v.commies who are so good about posting comments. It would be dull to blog w/o getting replies. Thanks, gang!

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on July 5, 2010 at 3:16 AM

Terez, as usual, your blog was wonderful to read.  If I had a small dose of atonal music performed live, I might get over my aversion to it.

A palindrome for the whole orchestra sounds awesome.  It's a lot more sophisticated than the short palindrome, table music, or upside down music (various names for the same piece) by Mozart that I learned as a kid.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on July 5, 2010 at 4:12 PM

 >If I had a small dose of atonal music performed live, I might get over my aversion to it.

Yup, this is the way for concert halls to do it. MTT is a champion of getting the 20th (and 21st) century repertoire in the programs. But, I have to say, I heard an hour-long symphony commissioned by the SFS, played a few years back (don't want to be rude and mention the composer's name) and it became so dull and nonlinear that I was struggling to stay awake. Waaaaaaay too much atonal music. I much prefer hearing the 10-15 minute snippets. Lulu was longer, but quite palatable the whole time. Probably because the story line was so interesting.

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