Musicians are doing encores all wrong, says Richard Morrison

Performers shouldn’t wait until their encore to share something personal

A star being asked for an encore
Published: July 26, 2022 at 3:51 pm
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I never hear an encore in a concert hall without thinking of Oliver Twist. ‘Please, sir, I want some more,’ the boy cried – ‘desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery’, as Dickens put it. Elsewhere in the April 2022 issue we report that Daniel Barenboim has just recorded a whole album of encores. Presumably his legion of fans don’t feel reckless with misery, but are they desperate with hunger for more charming ivory-ticklers from a performer who has already recorded umpteen albums of all conceivable repertoire?

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In fact, how often is an audience really hungry to hear more from a soloist who has already entertained them for a whole recital or a concerto? Or has the ritual of an encore just become another of those stale conventions baked into attending a classical concert?

Just once in 50 years of concert-going have I heard an encore so thrilling, so life-enhancing, that the entire audience rose to acclaim it – not when it had finished, but while it was still going on. It was the summer of 1987, and Vladimir Horowitz (who hadn’t played in public for several years) was on a farewell tour of Europe. I had interviewed him a few days before his Royal Festival Hall concert and was frankly sceptical about the project. To be blunt, the Russian virtuoso, then 84, seemed senile.

Well, how wrong can you be? I don’t know what they slipped into his tea, but his London recital was phenomenal. It was as if the decades had rolled back and those famous flat fingers were racing round the keys like it was 1928.

Then he played the first of several encores - Chopin’s ‘Heroic’ Polonaise in A flat. When he reached the pulsating E major middle section, and his left hand started pumping out that descending ostinato in octaves at breakneck speed, an astonishing thing happened. One by one, then row by row, people started to rise to their feet. Some even lifted their hands, as if transfixed by some celestial power. Long before Horowitz had played the final notes, a vast roar from the crowd drowned out the piano.

Perhaps being there spoilt me, because most encores I have heard since then strike me as routine, or even perfunctory. Sometimes without bothering even to announce what the music is, the soloist wheels out a piece that – surprise, surprise – is featured on his or her latest album. And the poor old orchestra has to sit there silent and bored, though with their faces carefully radiating polite interest.

Thank heavens that some younger soloists – the ones that dare to be different and are therefore usually labelled as ‘mavericks’ – have started to rethink the whole nature of encores. At the BBC Proms a few years ago, Pekka Kuusisto set the trend. After a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto he launched into a spirited rendition of a Finnish folksong (‘dating from the days when Russia was part of Greater Finland,’ he quipped). What’s more, he got the orchestra and audience playing and clapping as well. At the Proms last year, Patricia Kopatchinskaja went even further. Instead of waiting till ‘encore time’ to play some folk music, she inserted it before and during her performance of Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2, thus revealing the inspiration behind the concerto.

That made me think. When encores work, they work for three reasons. First, they ambush the audience. Secondly, they give the performer the opportunity to speak, and thus establish a different sort of bridge to the listeners. And thirdly, they reveal an unexpected facet of the performer’s musicality or personality.

But performers could do all of that during a concert if they were bold enough. They don’t have to wait for ‘encore time’. They could speak to their audiences, pointing out what to listen to in pieces, or explaining why they are specially attracted to this music. And they could surprise the public with unscheduled additions, just as Kopatchinskaja did.

Not only would that bring more of a sense of spontaneity into classical music – something that might attract younger people accustomed to the casual atmosphere of rock gigs. It would also allow soloists to reveal more of their characters and their special passions than is possible within the corseted confines of a normal concert programme.

Wouldn’t you love to see that sense of adventure in our concert halls? Not all the time, but much more regularly. It would be a breath of fresh air. In fact, you might even find me shouting ‘encore!’.

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Image by Getty Images

Authors

Richard Morrison classical music
Richard MorrisonChief Music Critic, The Times

Richard Morrison is the chief music critic and culture writer for The Times. He is also a columnist for BBC Music Magazine, for which he was awarded Columnist of the Year at the 2012 PPA Awards.

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