Encores Gone Wild

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For his October New York recital debut at the Metropolitan Opera, Kaufmann came out for not one, not two, but five encores. The vocal lumberjack sliced through four Richard Strauss lieder (Breit über mein Haupt, Ach weh mir unglückhaftem Mann, Freundliche Vision and Zueignung) before coming out one final shot of “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz” from Lehár’s Das Land des Lächelns, or The Land of Smiles. It was a heady excess: one was great, two was a treat and after a while, as each applause subsided at the sight of pianist Helmut Deutsch toting out another piece of sheet music, the feeling among many became “Sure, why not, we’ve got all night.”

Similarly, at Ian Bostridge’s Carnegie Hall recital last Monday, we were given two encores. He came out and announced his first encore, Caliban’s aria from The Tempest, to wry giggles when he described it as “by a composer named Thomas Adès” (Adès was at the keyboard for the whole of recital). It was the perfect cap off to the evening, a divergence from the rest of the program of wrist-cutting vocal music by John Dowland, Gyorgy Kurtag, Schumann, Schubert and Liszt, while still making sense given the performers at hand (Adès also performed a solo piano work of his based on the Dowland). Bostridge returned for “Ständchen” from Schubert’s Schwanengesang, a cycle he sampled in the recital proper. There was the unmistakable feeling, perhaps in a Kaufmann flashback, that he may have come out for a third, but the two encores presented were perfect on their own—a little dessert wine and amuse-bouche-sized pastry to send concertgoers on their way home.

In a letter to the 18th-century British magazine The Spectator, Toby Rentfree wrote: “I observe it’s become a Custom, that whenever any Gentlemen are particularly pleased with a Song, at their crying out Encore or Altro Volto, the Performer is so obliging as to sing it over again.”

Rentfree thus did exactly that during a performance of Francesco Mancini’s Hydaspes, which the writer attributes as the third opera he had seen, but was ignored by the cast. “The Lion was carried off, and went to Bed, without being killed any more that Night,” Rentfree concludes. “Why then have not I as much Right to have a graceful Action repeated…? Pray, Sir, settle the Business of this Claim in the Audience, and let us know when we might cry Altro Volto, Anglicè, again, again, for the future.”

All this has led me to wonder what purpose the encore actually serves. In the tradition of criticism, the encore is a spontaneous present for the audience from the performer. Historically speaking, many critics did not stay for these parting shots, nor was it expected of them to do so—a treat for leaving the house and showing up at a concert hall. Today, not only are critics expected to stay and note these pieces, they have become far less spontaneous and more a part of the program. Dessert is expected to follow dinner, even if you’ve just had the sonic equivalent of five courses laden with red meat, cream and carbs, washed down with full-bodied wine pairings.

Some musicians, like violinist Hilary Hahn, operate in a sphere where the encore tradition is, if not dying, then on several life-sustaining medications. It’s led to Hahn developing In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores, a commissioning project that will expand the violin’s encore repertoire and encourage composers, including Nico Muhly, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Mark-Anthony Turnage and Lera Auerbach, to create more such works.

Vocal music, however, is chockablock full of shorter works that make for perfect encores in a recital setting. But just how necessary are these pieces? For a violinist performing a half-hour long concerto, it’s one thing to then come out with a five-minute work as an acknowledgment of the audience reception. Pianist Garrick Ohlsson gave a touching rendition of Debussy’s Clair de Lune following the mammoth Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall this season.

On the other hand, song cycles and liederabends are essentially thematically linked omnibuses of encore pieces. Kaufmann’s Strauss lieder were extensions of the other Strauss lieder he sang as part of his billed recital. Bostridge’s Schubert encore was lifted from the same cycle that appeared on his official program. It’s not that it isn’t a treat to hear these works performed live by singers we love, but somewhere along the line the spontaneity gets forsaken for, if not rote, then something in the general neighborhood. We no longer beg for encores, we expect them.

Of course, some magic in the moment still exists. As a final thought, I’ll leave with you the below clip of a 2009 Rigoletto from Madrid’s Teatro Real (one with an atmosphere much like Muti’s recent, politically-charged encore of “Va pensiero” from Nabucco). One of our generation’s finest Verdian jesters, Leo Nucci, gave such a searing performance of “Si vendetta,” one full of intensity and immediacy, that it literally stopped the show. Imagine the thrill of the live audience to see the full dramatic course of action paused to see these two minutes relived.

As an audience member, do you enjoy encores? Is there any point where they become gratuitous? Leave your comments below and take our poll: