Encore! Stumped Again!

Gilbert & Sullivan have told us that "the policeman's lot is not a happy one." The musical detective has it far worse, I'm afraid, and the Encore Identification Detectives' Union has had a particularly bad time of it lately.

The story is told of the young man who once approached Johannes Brahms and remarked to him that a theme employed in a newly minted Brahms symphony seemed to him to have been taken from another work. "Any idiot knows that!" Brahms is alleged to have replied. And Sammy Cahn, when writing a song lyric, said "I've heard that song before" to which his collaborator asked "What are you, a detective?" "No," Cahn replied, "that's the name of the song." Some folks can identify a piece of music after hearing five notes; others can't, never could, and never will.

On the evening of December 2, 2008, the esteemed pianist Emanuel Ax played a recital of Schubert and Liszt here in New Haven. Following a thunderous ovation at the end of the printed program, Ax sat down to play an encore.

I confess that I am an abject failure as a musical detective. I cannot identify a piece of music accurately 95 out of 100 times, and on occasion the misidentifications have been astonishing. I recall with embarrassment one encore played years ago by Vladimir Feltsman that caused me to say "Gee, that sounds like it is from the Anna Magdalena Bach Notebook" when, in fact, it was by Schnittke or Tcherepnin or someone about as far removed from Johann Sebastian Bach as an orange is from a hammer. "Name That Tune" is one of those games I simply am not equipped to play.

At any rate, after this dizzyingly wonderful concert of music by Schubert and Liszt, Emanuel Ax played an encore. "Hmm, Schubert and Liszt, followed by more Schubert and more Liszt. This encore must be by Schubert!" Wrong. The encore was described to me by a pianist friend as "the most famous waltz of Chopin." The unspoken sub-text being "And how could you have missed that, you boob?"

I devoutly hope and pray that I am not alone in my position as clueless when it comes to encore identification. Surely a country capable of putting a man on the moon is capable of addressing this problem without a massive federal bureaucracy on the order of the National Encore Identification Service (which the Bush Administration would probably place in the Department of Agriculture, but let it pass). What we have now is faith-based encore identification ("I pray I have this right") whereas what we need is facts if not necessarily science.

The answer to this nagging problem rests with concert managers. It would be a small matter for house management to advise the artist "If you are going to play an encore, you need to audibly announce to the audience what you are playing before you play it." If the artist responds "I never do that!" the rejoinder is "You do here!" The loss of solemn mystery that comes from spontaneously playing whatever comes into the head of the artist as he/she sits at the keyboard or picks up his/her instrument is more than made up for in audience understanding. And the horror of those ace detectives who exclaim "I knew that!" would be more than drown out by the appreciative "Ah, now I get it!" cooing of the audience.