I don't think this blog entry will change the world, but it's possible, and if enough of you forward it to the music directors of your friendly neighborhood orchestras, it just might work.
I have been thinking about the upcoming Hollywood Bowl season, and a concert we're going to tonight (as I write this) at Disney Hall, and the hundreds of other concerts I've attended. The ones that stand out for me are the ones where something unexpected happened. In other words, an encore happened.
I remember one show at the Hollywood Bowl when John Raitt coerced his daughter Bonnie into singing "Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better" with him. They messed it up, but it was a lovely moment, and we in the audience felt like we'd been given a special gift. Another time at the Bowl young Italian violinist Augustin Hadelich gave us a devilishly difficult solo encore after performing with the LA Phil. I remember a concert on the Greek island of Santorini in 1987 when an old performing couple -- cello and piano, I think -- gave us encore after encore; they were so grateful and gracious, the feeling stays with me. I remember Dudamel leading the massed orchestra and chorus in the last measures of Beethoven's 9th as an encore to end that free concert at the Bowl in his first season ... as well as the Maestro telling the KUSC radio crew about enjoying a beer between numbers. And the time John Mauceri did a surprise rendition of the "I Love Lucy" theme at the end of a program sticks with me to this day; we were delighted!
If I were music director of an orchestra, I'd write an encore into every visiting performer's contract. Why? Because at the end of a regular performance you typically go away thinking this piece was great, and that piece was okay, and on the whole it was an enjoyable evening. But unless the performance is spectacular -- Salonen and Gershon leading the Prokofiev score to Eisenstein's "Alexander Nevsky" stands out -- you generally leave feeling ... content. "That was nice. We should do that again. Wasn't that nice? Yes, that was nice. Oh, I hope we can find the car, and I hope traffic isn't too bad."
If I'm running the orchestra, I don't want you to feel content. I want you to feel surprised; I want you to feel special. (This goes for Off-Ramp, too. It's why I stick little extras into the credits.) You spent $50 or $100, you stuck around to the end, and you deserve a present. I want you to leave saying, "Wow, that was really something, and wasn't Vladimir Kaputchnik sweet to give us that encore! We're coming back next week!"
To be clear: I don't need bread and circuses. I don't need nude oboists, or a song and dance by the conductor, or a giant spaceship landing on stage. I appreciate a solid performance of a great work. But that's only part of the live performance formula. The other part involves a little PT Barnum. (Or, Dudamel, for that matter.)
Look, orchestra management: Nobody will ever know if you simply secretly build this into the program, and act like the last piece you plan to perform is transformed into an encore. That can be your little secret.
Also, I'll let you in on a little secret from our side of the podium: nobody in the audience gives a good God damn that it's considered rude for a soloist to perform an encore while the orchestra sits and listens. We're the audience, your customers, and we just sat still for two hours; you can do it for five more minutes. If you're really worried about time, let's end the silly curtain calls, the walking back and forth, the standing and sitting and all that. That feels more orchestrated than a Karl Rove on-air trantrum, or Beyoncé "singing" the national anthem. If classical groups are worried about bringing in new audiences and energizing the ones they have, they have to make sure something happens on stage. We want to be edified and entertained. And if you do that, we'll come back.
Please pass this note along; let's start the Encore Enlightenment.
(If Coldplay can do it ...)