What's Gone Wrong with Encores?

Thursday, May 15, 2014

An audience awaits an encore at an orchestra concert An audience awaits an encore at an orchestra concert (Getty Images)

Every concert-goer has experienced this at one time or another: a performance that is so exhilarating or so transcendent that after the final notes, the audience cheers, leaps to its feet and demands to hear more.

But what follows can be maddeningly routine, insipid and uninspired, says David Oldroyd-Bolt, a writer and pianist who recently covered the phenomenon for the Telegraph.

"I think it's not only what has gone wrong with encores, it can be seen as a wider symptom of what's gone wrong with recital programs in general," he tells Naomi Lewin in this podcast. He feels that recitalists, especially pianists, have become safe and predictable in their choice of repertoire. And this starts with conservatory training.

"When you come to your professional career you think, 'what would someone like?' And unfortunately, it seems to be the same three, four or five pieces. It's a failure of imagination and it's a failure of artistic expression."

Particularly overdone are chestnuts like Chopin's Nocturne in D-flat Major, Schumann's Traumerei and Liszt's La campanella etude, Oldroyd-Bolt argues. Too often missing are the "party pieces" that used to make encores delightful and surprising – opera transcriptions, jazz arrangements and other novelties.

Other Highlights of this Segment:

A Pianist Who Bucks the Trend:

Not everyone falls into a routine. Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin explains that the point of an encore should be to "delight, perhaps amuse, intrigue and maybe even astonish if that's your bag." He often doesn't know what he'll play until he returns to the piano and gauges an audience's reaction. Among his current favorites is Chopin's "Minute Waltz" – but with a twist:

The Opera Encore:

The encore has also come in for renewed scrutiny lately in the opera world, after Javier Camarena delivered one in the middle of La Cenerentola at the Metropolitan Opera on April 25. The tenor was only the third singer to do that at the company in 70 years.

Tim Smith, the classical music critic of the Baltimore Sun, tells Lewin that he generally finds opera encores "disruptive," although not in relatively light fare. "If you're doing a comedy, I don't think it's going to destroy the evening," he said. "I think you could even make a case for an encore in one of the bigger bread-and-butter operas – a Tosca, for example."

Smith recently reviewed a performance of Verdi's Nabucco by the Lyric Opera of Baltimore in which the company was so intent on taking a customary encore of the Chorus of Hebrew Slaves ("Va, pensiero") that it even turned up the house lights, switched the surtitles to Italian and rehearsed the audience to sing along.

Both Smith and Oldroyd-Bolt argue that such encores should be used sparingly or they become routine. "If the audience is wild with enthusiasm, then I think there's a case for it," said Oldroyd-Bolt. "If you're going through rehearsing choruses and tenors going on and off stage like a jack in the box simply for tradition's sake, then I think it becomes rather stale and hackneyed."         

Both audiences and performers may also think of the missed trains home, car services idling outside theaters and unions demanding overtime. "If you see some of them leaving for their train, maybe it's not such a good idea to press the issue too much," said Hamelin. "And that's fine."

Listen to the full podcast above, which includes our guests' all-time favorite encores. And tell us what you think: Have encores grown stale? Do you have any memorable encore experiences?


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Comments [13]

concetta nardone from Nassau

This is about standing ovations for everything. The president's state of the union has all the hyenas standing up after every sentence the Beloved Leader speaks. I cannot watch this because of the fawning audience. We are supposed to be a REPUBLIC. Both parties, What baloney. Cannot use the other word because we have to be civil.

May. 20 2014 10:03 AM
catspaw from Virginia

Yes, let's please do something about standing ovations. They used to mean something. These days a performance would have to be really terrible for there not to be an ovation and even then people would probably stand and applaud in sympathy. No, I don't stand at each performance I hear. I may have really enjoyed it but to me standing ovations are for those really extraordinary and not routine performances that are transcendent.

May. 18 2014 07:13 AM
Dillon Welch from Austin, Texas

I saw Gabriela Montero play the Mozart D minor Piano Concerto with the Austin Symphony last night. She is known for doing particularly original and impressive encores. After returning to the stage, she asks the audience members to shout out a familiar tune for her to improvise on. Appropriately enough for Texas, the consensus from the audience last night was "The Eyes of Texas," which she had to have sung to her since she was unfamiliar with it. She then commenced to play for five minutes one of the most impressive improvisations I have ever heard by a classical musician. Absolutely incredible.

May. 17 2014 12:50 PM
Leslie A. Miller from Belfast, Maine

I was at a wonderful piano concert by Andras Schiff, at New England Conservatory a few years ago.
He came out for an encore. At the first note I could not believe my ears. The better part of the Beethoven opus 111 in C minor! My forever piece!

At the Met, I missed the performance with Mr. Camerena's encore, but heard some which I didn't think were deserved.

Last year we screamed and yelled for an encore of Una Furtiva Lagrima, definitely deserved and wanted so badly by the audience, who had made it to the evening during a blizzard. Nope.. not an extra note. Same tenor, same reaction this year during one of the performances of Cosi. A dead quiet audience of almost 4000 people. Then screaming and yelling... nope, not an extra note. Was told later that you have to arrange for encores a head of time. WHAT!!!!!

Then recitals ending with Beethoven's last Sonata, op. 111. No encore. How can you perform anything after that glory?

May. 17 2014 11:35 AM

I for one prefer hearing familiar pieces played well. So often the program consists of the unfamiliar, which is good as it broadens the listener's experience. It is nice, therefore, to return "home" for the encore(s).

May. 17 2014 10:13 AM
Jeffery Triggs from Madison, NJ

The best encore we heard recently was at a piano recital in Vienna. After a long program (a Schubert sonata, Debussy etudes, and Chopin's 3rd sonata) the young pianist surprised and delighted us by coming back out and giving a beautiful performance of Brahms's Op. 118 No. 2. I never hear this now without thinking of her.

May. 17 2014 10:12 AM
The Truth from LES

Well, the standing ovation really has become way too automatic. It's a way that people try to validate the high ticket prices they paid to be there. I think standing up should be reserved for maybe 1 out of a 100 concerts.

Usually, you get a few people doing it then everyone wants to see over them so before you know it, the whole place is on their feet - but not because they felt the performance was so special.

May. 16 2014 08:32 PM
Susan from Fourth Ring, When Permitted

How any person has the nerve to tell another person why or how they should be moved by a performance and how they should express their feelings is beyond me. I love music, all music, passionately, and I'm afraid the awe and reverence I have for anyone with the gift of performing this music makes it impossible for me to adopt the sniffy, superior, dismissive tone that characterizes so much of the comments found in this forum, and very sadly, at the concert hall. If you don't think the performance is worth a standing o, then sit. But don't dare take the stance that you are superior to the know-nothing rabble who feel a standing o is in order. They just might be people who genuinely love the music and are grateful to attend the concert, not those who wear their subscriptions on their sleeves or attend to validate their lofty position in life.

May. 16 2014 06:06 PM
Robert St.Onge from Cochiti Lake,NM

To "Sandy,from Peterborough,NH": If you had heard Joyce DiDonato in a recent recital in Santa Fe perform 'Over the Rainbow' as her final encore you never would have written what you did. As Ms. DiDonato is from Kansas, she really feels this song and she sang it as superbly as she does "Non piu mesta" from 'La Cenerentola'. In fact, I think that should be a good reason for an encore, that it is meaningful for the performer. I remember my first vocal recital, in Springfield, MA, when after a superb recital Victoria de los Angeles brought out a guitar for her last encore and accompanied herself in the frothy 'Clavelitos'. Wow - still memorable after all these years! If the performers want to have fun after delivering a stirring performance then by all means let them!!

May. 16 2014 12:50 PM

Thumbs down. If I want to hear an encore, I'll applaud loud and long. Just because I'm standing does not mean I'm part of a standing ovation (which should be very rare).

I may listen to an encore as I'm leaving the hall. Thanks for the choice.


May. 16 2014 12:01 AM
Judith from NJ

I think these three criteria should be met for an Encore:
#1 should be performed right after the 2nd applause.
#2 It should be a piece that is very well known.
#3 It should be on the short side.
Best encore I ever witnessed was Glinka's - Russian and Ludmilla Overture. I don't even recall what was programmed that night, or who performed it!

May. 15 2014 08:21 PM
Sandy from Peterborough, NH

What I really loathe is an encore that is a completely different style from the rest of the program, such as a Broadway song, jazz number, or pop song after a classic vocal recital, particularly if the last selection on the program proper was especially moving.

May. 15 2014 04:41 PM
Bernie from UWS

What gets me are the performers who wait forever to do an encore - and then when they finally decide to come out, half the audience has started moving towards the exits. Then it becomes really awkward, with audience members standing in the aisles while some pianist is launching into a ten-minute piece by Liszt or something. It's like, we don't have all day - get out and do your encore or call it a night!

May. 15 2014 04:33 PM

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