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Classical Notes

Encore! Encore!

Posted at 12:42 PM on February 25, 2007 by Alison Young

A short piece in the New York Times this weekend really caught my attention: First Scala Aria Encore in 74 Years. It seems Juan Diego Florez, singing in a revival of "The Daughter of the Regiment" was chomping at the bit to sing an encore, but as he told an interviewer, only if it was called for.

And it was called for when the loggionisti (the same group whose boo's sent Roberto Alagna walking out in the middle of a performance) yelled "Bis! Bis! Bis!" Florez was the first solo singer to break the tradition which has fobidden encores at La Scala. It was Toscanini who felt repeating a piece broke the dramatic pace and focused too much on individual singers rather than the opera as a whole.

The use of the word "encore" can be traced to the 18th century when it received this satirical couplet:

"To the same notes thy sons shall hum or snore
And all thy growing daughters cry encore."

Although encore in French means again, you’ll only hear the word screamed in English-speaking houses. The French, like the Italians, yell "bis" (twice) when they are particularly moved by a performance. But nowadays, an encore usually means an extra piece played at the end of a recital or by a soloist after a concerto. In fact, we have a disc we’re practically playing grooves into here at MPR by Leif Ove Andsnes called A Personal Collection of Piano Encores that is one lovely little 2 – 3 minute tune after another, and surprisingly many quite slow or reflective. Interestingly, Andsnes' concept is somewhat along the lines of Sir Thomas Beecham’s view. He called encores, lollipops and felt while the concert brings you up, the encore sets you back down.

I have to say I'm on the fence about the whole encore thing. On one hand the spell can be completely broken if an encore is added to a performance. I went to the SPCO last night and heard an incredible performance of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. The mezzo had us spellbound as she faded away on the word ewig, "forever." I couldn’t bear to make a sound when she finished. But I also couldn’t bear to give her lackluster applause, so we whooped and hollered with the rest of the audience. I would not have had a problem if she had sung an encore, even if it was completely in the wrong style. She was just that good. But, I play music all day that is a bit incongruous. Like right now, I have my earphones playing a new 20th century clarinet music CD I'm reviewing while Harry Christophers and The Sixteen sing Palestrina in the background, so breaking the continuity of a performance is not a problem for me. Bis! Bis! Bis!