Encores Gone Wild

How Necessary Are These Pieces?

Sunday, December 04, 2011 - 10:24 AM

For his October New York recital debut at the Metropolitan Opera, Kaufmann came out for not one, not two, but five encores. The vocal lumberjack sliced through four Richard Strauss lieder (Breit über mein Haupt, Ach weh mir unglückhaftem Mann, Freundliche Vision and Zueignung) before coming out one final shot of “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz” from Lehár’s Das Land des Lächelns, or The Land of Smiles. It was a heady excess: one was great, two was a treat and after a while, as each applause subsided at the sight of pianist Helmut Deutsch toting out another piece of sheet music, the feeling among many became “Sure, why not, we’ve got all night.”

Similarly, at Ian Bostridge’s Carnegie Hall recital last Monday, we were given two encores. He came out and announced his first encore, Caliban’s aria from The Tempest, to wry giggles when he described it as “by a composer named Thomas Adès” (Adès was at the keyboard for the whole of recital). It was the perfect cap off to the evening, a divergence from the rest of the program of wrist-cutting vocal music by John Dowland, Gyorgy Kurtag, Schumann, Schubert and Liszt, while still making sense given the performers at hand (Adès also performed a solo piano work of his based on the Dowland). Bostridge returned for “Ständchen” from Schubert’s Schwanengesang, a cycle he sampled in the recital proper. There was the unmistakable feeling, perhaps in a Kaufmann flashback, that he may have come out for a third, but the two encores presented were perfect on their own—a little dessert wine and amuse-bouche-sized pastry to send concertgoers on their way home.

In a letter to the 18th-century British magazine The Spectator, Toby Rentfree wrote: “I observe it’s become a Custom, that whenever any Gentlemen are particularly pleased with a Song, at their crying out Encore or Altro Volto, the Performer is so obliging as to sing it over again.”

Rentfree thus did exactly that during a performance of Francesco Mancini’s Hydaspes, which the writer attributes as the third opera he had seen, but was ignored by the cast. “The Lion was carried off, and went to Bed, without being killed any more that Night,” Rentfree concludes. “Why then have not I as much Right to have a graceful Action repeated…? Pray, Sir, settle the Business of this Claim in the Audience, and let us know when we might cry Altro Volto, Anglicè, again, again, for the future.”

All this has led me to wonder what purpose the encore actually serves. In the tradition of criticism, the encore is a spontaneous present for the audience from the performer. Historically speaking, many critics did not stay for these parting shots, nor was it expected of them to do so—a treat for leaving the house and showing up at a concert hall. Today, not only are critics expected to stay and note these pieces, they have become far less spontaneous and more a part of the program. Dessert is expected to follow dinner, even if you’ve just had the sonic equivalent of five courses laden with red meat, cream and carbs, washed down with full-bodied wine pairings.

Some musicians, like violinist Hilary Hahn, operate in a sphere where the encore tradition is, if not dying, then on several life-sustaining medications. It’s led to Hahn developing In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores, a commissioning project that will expand the violin’s encore repertoire and encourage composers, including Nico Muhly, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Mark-Anthony Turnage and Lera Auerbach, to create more such works.

Vocal music, however, is chockablock full of shorter works that make for perfect encores in a recital setting. But just how necessary are these pieces? For a violinist performing a half-hour long concerto, it’s one thing to then come out with a five-minute work as an acknowledgment of the audience reception. Pianist Garrick Ohlsson gave a touching rendition of Debussy’s Clair de Lune following the mammoth Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall this season.

On the other hand, song cycles and liederabends are essentially thematically linked omnibuses of encore pieces. Kaufmann’s Strauss lieder were extensions of the other Strauss lieder he sang as part of his billed recital. Bostridge’s Schubert encore was lifted from the same cycle that appeared on his official program. It’s not that it isn’t a treat to hear these works performed live by singers we love, but somewhere along the line the spontaneity gets forsaken for, if not rote, then something in the general neighborhood. We no longer beg for encores, we expect them.

Of course, some magic in the moment still exists. As a final thought, I’ll leave with you the below clip of a 2009 Rigoletto from Madrid’s Teatro Real (one with an atmosphere much like Muti’s recent, politically-charged encore of “Va pensiero” from Nabucco). One of our generation’s finest Verdian jesters, Leo Nucci, gave such a searing performance of “Si vendetta,” one full of intensity and immediacy, that it literally stopped the show. Imagine the thrill of the live audience to see the full dramatic course of action paused to see these two minutes relived.

As an audience member, do you enjoy encores? Is there any point where they become gratuitous? Leave your comments below and take our poll:



More in:

Comments [4]

Michael Meltzer

It is possible to over-analyze here. Programs are expected, by audiences and critics, to be both organized and to include larger works, so a piano recital may be a Bach Partita, a Prokofiev Sonata, a set of Chopin Etudes and a Ballade, for example.
The encores are the performer's opportunity to play his or her own shorter personal favorites, and with no particular order or logic demanded.
It is often the most intimate part of the performance. It certainly always was with Horowitz, Rubinstein and Rudolf Serkin.

Dec. 09 2011 09:21 AM
Howard Frankment from Staten Island, NY

Believe it or not 'wrist-cutting' is not just a 'bon mot' to be dropped ever so nonchalantly in a cutsey essay on how some poor souls must endure endless encores which hold up their retreat to the Russian Tea Room for caviar and watercress sandwiches. Forgive us great unwashed when we take offense and please, for the love of God, abstain from any encores to this or any other of your insufferable essays.

Dec. 05 2011 03:20 PM
Robert Poda from New York

Back about 20 years ago in the days when Montserrat Caballe gave recitals, about one-third of her program were encores after the program proper. The audience and I looked forward to these events for the encores and loved them.

Dec. 04 2011 03:35 PM
Gloria Schuster from Maspeth, NY

I enjoy them, even if they are planned.

At Joshua Bell's recent Carnegie Hall Concert, I knew encore(s) were planned as the usher had them listed on her "notes". It worked well for the 10 year old who was with us. It was his first classical concert experience, complete with someone yelling, "we love you", camera flashes just before the encore both stopping Bell in his tracks, (can't stop the camera phones), and Bell's informal comments from stage. For a 10 year old, it was a welcome break from the "polite formality" he experienced as a first-time concert goer/

Dec. 04 2011 02:32 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

The WQXR e-newsletter. Show highlights, links to music news, on-demand concerts, events from The Greene Space and more.

Follow WQXR 







About Operavore


Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

Follow Operavore