Play it again: on encores
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about encores. Sometimes, they can be the most fun part of the concert -- vocal recitalists are particularly adept at finding bonbons to offer after the main program is over. And they certainly occasion lively interest among listeners. I think the single most-asked question I hear after a concert is, “What was the encore?”
There’s a tradition, though, that critics don’t review encores -- indeed, often enough, that they leave the auditorium before them. There are a couple of reasons for this tradition. One reaches back to the days when deadlines were so early that critics had to race back to the paper to file their reviews, though today, the overnight review is the exception rather than the rule for most critics.
The other, which may have more continued relevance, is the idea that an encore is a gift from the performer to the audience, and therefore shouldn’t be judged in the same way that a concert is. There’s a complicated accounting that grows up around encores in people’s minds. Some audiences seem to feel entitled to them if they clap hard enough; and few performers mind being received so warmly, though the great pianist Artur Schnabel categorically refused to give encores for much of his career, saying that he viewed the audience’s applause as a receipt, not a bill.
(read more after the jump)
As a critic I have mixed feelings about whether or not to write about the encore. I do see the sense in viewing it as hors du combat: something apart from the concept of the main program. In many cases, though, the encore is a scripted part of the proceedings, as carefully prepared as the main program: sometimes extending a theme, sometimes deliberately offering something that wasn’t part of the main event. Yet if something went badly wrong in an encore -- a memory slip, a sour note -- it might seem unfair to allow that to reflect on the main program in a published review.
But the encore has another function, as well. Departing from the printed program, it gets listeners to sit up and take notice, speculating on what’s to come, trying to figure out what they’ve heard. In a way, it puts the audience into a more active role. I’m struck by how many people want to possess the encore, rather than the body of the recital; many people write after a concert to say they want to buy the music they last heard. I think there may be a sense of ownership involved in hearing music without intermediary, working to identify it. There may even be a kind of intimacy created when the performer, after having maintained silence through the evening (assuming this is a really traditional recital with no talking), breaks through the fourth wall to speak to the audience and tell them what they’re about to hear, albeit almost always in a voice too quiet to be heard by most of the public.
Obviously this is a lot of weight to put on a custom that's as variable as the performers who take part in it. Still, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on encores: on the tradition of giving them, on the substance of them, and on reviews of them. Recent experiences that have stuck in my own mind include the encores given last night by Sondra Radvanovsky and Dmitri Hvorostovsky, which were both stunning, and the one Radu Lupu gave in January, which I missed and have been hearing about since as something particularly wonderful.
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