There are critics who’ve been known to scurry out of a concert hall before the encores, lest this – and the audience response – somehow influence their assessment. Or the rationale might be that only the formal, planned portion of the concert is worthy of review. Others stick around, but might choose to make no mention of the encores.
That’s wrong, I think. Like them or not, encores are a part of the performance and invariably they are a planned element in the concert, even if they’re not publicised as such.
More important: encores can be terribly revealing – in choice and interpretation.
Orchestral encores are a rare treat in Sydney, and usually they are a treat. But last week I heard a couple that were no treat at all, despite being well chosen. In both cases, if I’d been assigning “points”, the concert’s score would have been lowered considerably by the encores, much in the way that a perfect 10 on the beam is squandered when the gymnast fails to stick her landing at the end. Or perhaps a better analogy would be to imagine the gymnast sticking her landing but then sticking her tongue out at the judges.
Which is kind of what happened. It almost made me wonder whether there mightn’t be a fundamental antipathy to encores behind it all (and later I heard that this is more or less the case). To which all I can say is, if you dislike them that much, stick to your guns and don’t play them; if you are going to play them, honour the music and the audience.
I’ll have to admit right now to being in a minority. Whether through genuine pleasure or misguided politeness, there were close on 2,500 people heaping up the applause while I and a handful of others sat numb. But what for?
On the first night it was a Brahms Hungarian dance so distorted, so grotesque, you’d swear Dali had gotten at it. Through the centuries – CPE Bach, Chopin, Debussy – we’ve had clear instructions and beautiful models for how a stylish and musical rubato works. You play with tempo on the surface, sure, but without ever losing sight of the underlying pulse; the rhythmic logic is always apparent, the integrity of the music assured. But this performance began with the beat pulled around like taffy, to the point of smearing the pulse altogether. (The score calls for none of this, by the way – there is a pause in the first bar, and shortly after that a three-bar slowing followed by a return to the initial lively(!) tempo, but that’s pretty much the extent of the liberties Brahms expects.)
It’s concert music, I know, but you couldn’t even have imagined dancing to this. It sounded like simple showing off: a demonstration of how far a phenomenal technique and an ensemble of fine musicians will allow you to stretch and contract the beat. Alas, the result had nothing with the composer’s intentions to do. Give me a less impressive technique and the humility of true musicianship any day. And I wish the review had mentioned it, because observations such as this one about the beautiful performance of the opening work – “an overriding strategy to carefully realise the composer’s precisely notated intentions” – were completely contradicted by what went unreported at the end.
Later in the week the pain was short and swift. Perhaps a little too swift: I wasn’t sure I’d ever heard the Trépak from Nutcracker skated quite so quickly. But on arriving home I was reminded that Gergiev’s recording takes it nearly as fast, only he understands that you have to give men (a) time to make those magnificent Cossack jumps, and (b) some downbeats to propel them into the air. This is a Russian dance after all, and it needs some virility. Again, it was all the more disappointing given that the opening work (Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead) had been given a performance that was not only impressively shaped but filled with obvious affection and respect.
Perhaps reviewers should pay more attention to encores and hold them to the same artistic standard as the main program, then presenters, performers (and audiences too) might be less inclined to regard them merely as essential crowd-pleasing fluff.