Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

Play it again: on encores

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about encores. Sometimes, they can be the most fun part of the concert -- vocal recitalists are particularly adept at finding bonbons to offer after the main program is over. And they certainly occasion lively interest among listeners. I think the single most-asked question I hear after a concert is, “What was the encore?”

There’s a tradition, though, that critics don’t review encores -- indeed, often enough, that they leave the auditorium before them. There are a couple of reasons for this tradition. One reaches back to the days when deadlines were so early that critics had to race back to the paper to file their reviews, though today, the overnight review is the exception rather than the rule for most critics.

The other, which may have more continued relevance, is the idea that an encore is a gift from the performer to the audience, and therefore shouldn’t be judged in the same way that a concert is. There’s a complicated accounting that grows up around encores in people’s minds. Some audiences seem to feel entitled to them if they clap hard enough; and few performers mind being received so warmly, though the great pianist Artur Schnabel categorically refused to give encores for much of his career, saying that he viewed the audience’s applause as a receipt, not a bill.
(read more after the jump)

As a critic I have mixed feelings about whether or not to write about the encore. I do see the sense in viewing it as hors du combat: something apart from the concept of the main program. In many cases, though, the encore is a scripted part of the proceedings, as carefully prepared as the main program: sometimes extending a theme, sometimes deliberately offering something that wasn’t part of the main event. Yet if something went badly wrong in an encore -- a memory slip, a sour note -- it might seem unfair to allow that to reflect on the main program in a published review.

But the encore has another function, as well. Departing from the printed program, it gets listeners to sit up and take notice, speculating on what’s to come, trying to figure out what they’ve heard. In a way, it puts the audience into a more active role. I’m struck by how many people want to possess the encore, rather than the body of the recital; many people write after a concert to say they want to buy the music they last heard. I think there may be a sense of ownership involved in hearing music without intermediary, working to identify it. There may even be a kind of intimacy created when the performer, after having maintained silence through the evening (assuming this is a really traditional recital with no talking), breaks through the fourth wall to speak to the audience and tell them what they’re about to hear, albeit almost always in a voice too quiet to be heard by most of the public.

Obviously this is a lot of weight to put on a custom that's as variable as the performers who take part in it. Still, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on encores: on the tradition of giving them, on the substance of them, and on reviews of them. Recent experiences that have stuck in my own mind include the encores given last night by Sondra Radvanovsky and Dmitri Hvorostovsky, which were both stunning, and the one Radu Lupu gave in January, which I missed and have been hearing about since as something particularly wonderful.

By Anne Midgette  |  March 30, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  CD reviews , random musings  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: WNO Hamlet update
Next: In performance: Duo Alterno


Encores are like improvisations. My church organist (who is superb at improvs) tells me he spends as much time on improvs as on any piece for Sunday morning. Ditto for hymn arrangements. All artists are the same; they know what they plan for an encore and prepare for it. However, I get frustrated when an artist simply sits down and plays an encore. I don't like sitting there wondering what he or she is playing, rather than focusing on the music itself. And, of course, encores should be reviewed; once offered they become part of the program.

Posted by: BobTatFORE | March 30, 2010 10:29 AM | Report abuse

Encores are a bit of a pet peeve of mine. I admit that sometimes the encore has been the highlight of a recital - I think of the hushed silence that always precedes the soloist starting the encore as everyone waits to start that "name that tune" game. But I wonder why couldn't this encore, this specially prepared gem have just been part of the program in the first place? I think what bothers me about this tradition is that it creates this air of exclusivity somehow and it ends up mostly feeling like a silly little game that has many different variations. How many times must the audience clap in order to get an encore? Must there be people actually standing in order to get one? And what if there really isn't a great response? Will the soloist still perform an encore anyway since they have one prepared? Then there are the folks in the audience that might not know as much about music. These games, including the name that tune game, might not be very amusing to them and in their mind they might be thinking, "Hey, I thought the concert was done." I've actually been with friends in situations like that and I hate to say it but I think that in spite of the beautiful music being performed, the event was spoiled for these newer listeners because of this change in program. They just didn't get it and I understand that. So in my opinion, I think encores are perhaps a bit passe. I wouldn't be sad if they slowly found their way out of performance practice.

As to whether or not to review them, I guess I figure if it was a good performance, sure, why not but if it didn't go well, it might be nice to have mercy on the performer, especially since it was at the end of a program. But that's coming from a performer's perspective. Interesting article...hadn't really thought about it before. Thank you.

Posted by: ericasipes1 | March 30, 2010 11:22 AM | Report abuse

If encores display an aspect of an artist prowess not evidenced during the scheduled program, or an artist is introducing a new role, as Sondra Rodvanovsky was doing last night, from the reader's perspective, encores are worth knowing about. Hvorstovsky's encore became an ellipsis to his opening remarks, so this encore is also definitely worth reporting.

But if it's yet another soprano intoning "O mio babbino caro" or a pianist playing a Chopin mazurka, it's pretty much a yawn for most readers. Given space limitations, when I've reviewed concerts, I've rarely mentioned such "standard" encores.

Posted by: JerryFloyd1 | March 30, 2010 12:47 PM | Report abuse

Thanks, Anne, for writing about encores, but I regret that you didn't mention an annoying practice of many artists: failing to announce encores. If an encore is a very well-known piece it doesn't matter, but if an encore is an obscure piece (definition, unknown to me), I want to know what it is or be left alone to leave with the critics.

Posted by: tlarthur | March 30, 2010 12:56 PM | Report abuse

They are certainly a treat and worth reviewing, much like a baseball game going into extra innings. I just wish that the performer does interact with the audience and announces the work. A win-win situation for all involved.

Posted by: donahues11 | March 30, 2010 1:37 PM | Report abuse

A third reason critics don't review encores: the critic doesn't know what the music was! It would be somewhat harsh to expect a critic to know every piece of music and adequately review something not on the program. (I think Page said something like this, and I still agree with it.)

Anyway, the expectation of an encore, the expectation of a standing ovation... I would value the experiences more if I experienced it less.

Posted by: prokaryote | March 30, 2010 1:44 PM | Report abuse

To me an Encore lends an improvisatory tone to the evening. And that's a good thing!
I wish classical events would feature more improvised works. It would clear some of the 'stuffy' air that surrounds them and make them more vital events. Possibly enhance the audience by replacing some of the blue-haired ladies with folks from younger generations.
Of course, classical musicians would then have to work a lot harder and become more familiar with how music is put together. Which is, of course, what jazz musicians have always done.

Posted by: kashe | March 30, 2010 3:09 PM | Report abuse

Today, "encore" is a bit of a misnomer. Only rarely do performers actually play or sing something "again" as was done a couple of centuries ago. I think it would be terrific to revive that practice in order for audience members to have two chances to hear something new or challenging. Whether that would work is debatable, though: typically, audiences barely tolerate most new or challenging music the first time around. The easy thing to do is to give them a Fritz Kreisler lollipop.

Posted by: Lutoslawski | March 30, 2010 3:13 PM | Report abuse

If a concert has gone well, it is the intention of the audience and the performer to extend the evening and their chance to be with the performers. So yes, in a vocal recital it is a lovely chance to offer a pleased audience more. I do not agree that the encores offered at the Hvorostofky concert merited an encore because the show was too long. and stunning is hardly a word I would have associated with any of it.

Posted by: Tenestelapromessa | March 30, 2010 3:33 PM | Report abuse

"The other, which may have more continued relevance, is the idea that an encore is a gift from the performer to the audience...."

Yes indeed, and a splendid way to put it, too.

Should critics review the encore as if it were a part of the scheduled program? Only if they have something good to say about it, otherwise mum's the word beyond mentioning the name and composer of the piece. Good manners dictates that approach, IMNSHO.

Should the artist announce from the stage the name and composer of the encore? Nah. Before presenting someone with a gift, would you first announce what the gift was to be, and where it was bought?

I think not.


Posted by: ACDouglas1 | March 30, 2010 6:33 PM | Report abuse

I think that encores should be reviewed, because frequently it's them that make the night great.
I always look forward to encores because they are a special gift coming from the artist's heart and a special way for an artist to communicate with the audience.
I loved both encores last night. I thought Dmitri's "Oy Ty Nochenka" was THE gem of the night. I am so happy that there still are artists who take music seriously and sing their hearts out!

Posted by: raisamassuda | March 30, 2010 9:31 PM | Report abuse

Encores are so ritualized and scripted that it's silly to pretend they're a spontaneous response to applause, or some personal gift to the audience. I've been to some very undistinguished concerts, in fact, when the audience clapped tepidly, got up to leave, and the performer still came out to deliver the de rigueur encore -- playing even while the audience was walking out!

And the practice of sitting down to play a piece without letting the audience know what they're hearing is just bizarre, rude and a bit snotty. It seems to say either, "You're here to hear ME, and the music itself doesn't matter," or else, "Obviously this piece is so well known that only an ignoramus would fail to recognize it." Both of which are attitudes the classical world really doesn't need.

But as long as this foolishness persists, clearly critics should at least mention the encores. Part of the job is to report on the event, after all, and that means finding out what the dang encores were. I've often had to go backstage after concerts and badger the artist or the presenter for the titles.

My vote: abolish this sham, put the bon-bons on the program, and be done with it.

Posted by: StephenBrookes | March 31, 2010 3:39 AM | Report abuse

I recently began a review of a Yefim Bronfman recital with a reference to his second and third encores (the second Liszt Paganini Etude and a little Scarlatti prelude), which I felt demonstrated two poles of the artist's spectacular talents. The recital itself covered everything in between. So, yes, I felt that those encores should be reviewed. The next day, the Italian fortepiano trio Voces Intimae -- taking the word literally -- encored the last movement of a Hummel trio, which brought smiles to an audience that had obviously loved it the first time around. Personally, I prefer reprising a movement that was particularly well received by the audience. I can see programming a new piece twice on a program, but I'm not sure about using the opportunity of an encore to repeat something new -- unless the piece was sensational to begin with.

Posted by: DanielH1 | March 31, 2010 10:09 AM | Report abuse

Like most people, I usually enjoy the extra treats that a performer throws our way after a delightful evening of music. But not always. Sometimes those little extras are anticlimactic and end up distracting me a little from the wonderful performance that preceded them.

A good case in point was last Friday's recital by Vladimir Feltsman at Strathmore. His exhilarating performance of Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" was such dynamic and quirky artistry and good fun that the two Chopin waltzes proved to be something of a buzz-kill. Nice, yes, but why spoil the electrifying Mussorgsky moment that was still lingering in the hall?

If anything, he should have repeated a section of "Pictures" and performed a true "encore." Which reminds me of a lovely moment a few years ago when Gil Shaham performed Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" at the Kennedy Center (with the NSO, I believe, although it might have been with a visiting orchestra). The wonderful performance so enchanted both the audience and the musicians that after a few moments of consultation between the soloist and the conductor, the ensemble repeated one of the "Seasons" in its entirety. A truly memorable encore.

Posted by: dreichmann | March 31, 2010 11:25 AM | Report abuse

So much to think about, but would it be too much to ask from a performer who is about to play an encore that they turn and address the audience like intelligent beings and let them know what is about to by played. And maybe why the performer love the piece....

Posted by: musicallymoab | March 31, 2010 7:18 PM | Report abuse

Radu Lupu's encore, if I recall, was the Brahms 118/2 Intermezzo.

I think too many performers' choices of encores have become cliche. Why not play new music, assured that it by that point won't have scared away any of the audience, and now that only those that really want to be there are left? Also, why not choose real rarities that are unlikely to get programmed--one encore I'd like to see a pianist arch enough to play is the Beethoven op 119/10 Bagatelle--being only about 12 bars long, it usually takes 10 to 15 seconds to play.

Posted by: douglas_bvg_rathbun | March 31, 2010 11:54 PM | Report abuse

Anne, terrific column. Would you write just a little more? :-)

If the performer is good, I could stay all night -- Kissin used to (and may still) play for what seemed like nothing more than the sheer pleasure of pleasuring his audience.

A young pianist, who will remain anonymous, played a concerto here in the midwest not so long ago and the performance was rewarded with only tepid applause from the audience.

It didn't deter the pianist one bit -- after the crowd was silent and leaving, out the artist came saying, "I don't usually come back after the applause stops, but if I don't play [something the youngster is noted for], you'll ask me why I didn't."

And so the encore was played. But only one.

Posted by: scottmp | April 2, 2010 3:10 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company