What's Gone Wrong with Encores?

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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?