Musicians do crooked encores, says Richard Morrison


I never hear an encore in a concert hall without thinking of Oliver Twist. “Please, sir, I want more,” cried the boy – “desperate with hunger and reckless with misery”, as Dickens put it. Elsewhere in this issue, we report that Daniel Barenboim has just recorded an entire album of encores. Presumably, his legion of fans doesn’t feel reckless in the face of misery, but are they desperate for more charming ivory ticklers from a performer who has already recorded countless albums of every repertoire imaginable?

In fact, how often is an audience really hungry to learn more about a soloist who has already entertained them for an entire recital or concerto? Or has the ritual of an encore become another one of those obsolete conventions prepared for attending a classical concert?

Only once in 50 years of gigs have I heard an encore so thrilling, so uplifting, that the entire audience rose to cheer — not when it was over, but as it continued. It was the summer of 1987 and Vladimir Horowitz (who hadn’t performed in public for several years) was on a farewell tour of Europe. I had interviewed him a few days before his concert at the Royal Festival Hall and I was frankly skeptical about the project. To be frank, the Russian virtuoso, then 84 years old, seemed senile.

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

Then he played the first of several encores – Chopin‘Eroica’ Polonaise in A flat. When he reached the thrilling middle section in E major and his left hand began pumping that descending ostinato in octaves at breakneck speed, an astonishing thing happened. One by one, then row by row, people started to stand up. Some even raised their hands, as though pierced by some celestial power. Long before Horowitz had played the final notes, a vast roar from the crowd drowned out the piano.

Maybe being there spoiled me, because most of the reminders I’ve heard since then feel routine, even superficial. Sometimes, without even bothering to announce what music it is, the soloist releases a piece that – surprise, surprise – appears on his latest album. And the poor old orchestra must sit there, silent and bored, though their faces carefully beam with polite interest.

Thank goodness some younger soloists—those who dare to be different and are therefore usually labeled as “mavericks”—have begun to rethink the whole nature of encores. At the BBC Proms a few years ago, Pekka Kuusisto started the trend. After a performance of Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto he launched into a fiery rendition of a Finnish folk song (“from when Russia was part of Greater Finland”, he joked). Moreover, he made the orchestra and the public play and applaud. At the Proms last year, Patricia Kopatchinskaja went even further. Instead of waiting until “encore time” to play folk music, she inserted it before and during her performance of Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2, revealing the inspiration behind the concerto.

It got me thinking. When reminders work, they work for three reasons. First, they ambush the public. Second, they give the performer the opportunity to speak, and thus establish another kind of bridge to the listeners. And third, they reveal an unexpected side 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 need to wait ‘still time’. They could speak to their audience, pointing out what to listen to in the tracks or explaining why they are particularly drawn to that music. And they might surprise the audience with unexpected additions, just like Kopatchinskaja did.

Not only would it bring more spontaneity to classical music – something that could appeal to young people accustomed to the laid-back atmosphere of rock concerts. It would also allow the soloists to reveal more of their characters and particular passions than is possible within the corseted confines of a normal concert program.

Wouldn’t you like 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 “again!”.

Image by Getty Images


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