06 April 2012

Unwelcome Encores

She clearly seemed to be enjoying the concert.  She clapped warmly enough when the performances were good and gave a tolerant laugh and polite applause when they were not, and generally seemed to be enjoying herself.  But suddenly that all changed;  "Oh No!  Please not!!  I want to go home!", were her muttered asides when the Singapore National Youth Sinfonia made it clear they were going for an encore.  All her good will towards them evaporated and not only did she refuse to applaud, but tut-tutted loudly and told her son (I think that's who was sitting the other side of her) to be ready to leave in case they went for another.  Mercifully they didn't, but the damage was done, and one lady in the audience clearly felt she had heard too much for one day.

Barely a week later and a very similar scenario.  The Chamber Players did a tolerable job of a Mendelssohn String Symphony and battled their way quite successfully through the Holberg Suite.  The audience gave them fairly generous applause which soon faded as the concert-master, who had been directing the performance, fled off stage.  Well trained in stage etiquette and knowing that their job was to follow the concert-master's lead, the rest of the orchestra ambled off too, and were still filing through the door when the concert-master hurried back in, took his seat and made it plain he was going for an encore.  Bemused, the  orchestra shambled back to desultory applause and a certain audible amusement and even as the double bass player was walking round the back of the stage fetching his instrument, the concert-master struck up a repeat performance of the Mendelssohn.  What had been tolerable first time round was indifferent now and the audience were out of their seats as soon as it was over in case there were any designs on further embarrassing encores.  On the bus back I overheard some of the audience; "That was OK, but that encore really wasn't necessary", said one, to which another replied, "It rather spoiled the concert, don't you think?"

One can understand why these amateur orchestras wanted to play an encore, even though there was no call for one.  Having spent possibly months working on these performances, just a single go on stage never seems enough and with a captive audience, there is always the temptation to do it all again.  But the lesson has to be learnt; ALWAYS leave your audience wanting more. 

The forcing on an audience of unwarranted encores is now endemic in south east Asia - it's been like that in mainland Europe for years - and it is to be wholly abhorred.  Once in a while a performance is so outstanding that the audience needs to hear more, but the habit of preparing encores and forging ahead with their delivery irrespective of audience reaction is nothing other than contemptuous of the audience.

It always amused me that from day one Kees Bakels programmed an encore or two for every MPO concert.  With no way of knowing whether the audience would even like the music, he was determined to set a precedent in which no concert was complete without an extra piece tacked on the end.  At least he usually had the good sense to choose something which suited the programme (even if we heard a disproportionate number of Brahms Hungarian Dances) and which involved most of the players who remained on stage in the aftermath of the last official item.  Others have not shown such intelligence. 

I well recall a fairly well known German conductor who did a programme of all 18th-century music.  I was involved in the first half, and as I left the organ and made my way back stage I was surprised to see a trio of trombones coming in wearing their concert togs.  "What are you here for?", I asked, "We're in the second encore" I was told.  I joined my wife in the audience for the second half and, true enough, after Beethoven 3, came an encore, and then came a huge influx of brass and percussion.  I prayed and prayed that the audience would  stop clapping, get up and walk out, leaving the conductor with the tricky situation of explaining why a large romantic orchestra had appeared just as everyone was leaving, but the Malaysians were too polite for that and we proceeded to have what the conductor described as a "taster" for next week's show.

Then there are the conductors so determined to give an encore that they literally force one on the audience.  Chean See Ooi was a master at this.  Audiences had a habit of stopping their applause and getting out of the hall as soon as she left the stage, so she simply stayed on stage, bowed, and went straight into the encore.

But at least most conductors try to make the encore fit into the programme.  Such musical sensitivity is rare among soloists who often seem to believe that the audience is as disinterested in the concerto as they are themselves.  Last week cellist Jan Vogler tacked the most ridiculous encore on to an an all-Russian programme (he had just done a decidedly indifferent Shostakovich Cello Concerto 1) with the SSO.  Why on earth did he feel his wayward take on a movement from a Bach Suite would be suitable in this context? Because he had announced in his biography printed in the programme book that he had just recorded the Bach Suites.  Promoting your latest CD should not be the function of an encore, and those who do deserve our contempt.  I hope the SSO don't invite him again, but I am certain Singaporeans won't buy his Bach CD - not because his playing was bad (although it was), but because they don't buy CDs.

And then there are the artists who live solely for the encore and accept the concerto duty only to give them a chance to impress a captive audience with their solo prowess.  Worst of all was the extraordinary Yevgeny Subdin who gave the Singapore audience a pretty miserable Scriabin some years back, and then followed this up with a stream of encores which took the concert well over the two-hour mark.  This is what I wrote in my review;
"Uneasy with the[Concerto's] all-too-frequent calls for delicacy, Sudbin was clearly anxious to get somewhere else. Where that was remained a mystery until the Concerto was over; it certainly wasn’t the work’s ending he was eager to reach, that fell desperately flat. It turned out to be the encores. Clearly a man with a mission – the mission being to fit in as many as he could irrespective of whether they were called for or not – every time Sudbin appeared on stage to accept the applause, he sat down at the piano and rattled his way through a series of pieces (there was Rachmaninov, Scarlatti and something which could have been Shostakovich, but I don’t really care, I’d like not to hear it again) in which dazzling virtuosity was very much to the fore (and truly breathtaking it was in the Scarlatti) and musicianship just about non-existent. He achieved his goal, though. From the very lacklustre response the audience gave him for the Concerto (which was, after all, why he was there), by the end of the third encore, they were on their feet, ready, it would seem, to leap on stage and rip the poor man’s ill-fitting jacket off him in a bid to get him to dazzle them with some more lightning fingerwork"

A good concert has a shape and purpose, a coherence and a logic which makes it appealing to an intelligent audience.  Throw in encores, and all that is swept aside and all we have is one pointless procession of pieces, not a million miles from the aimless stream of "soothing classics" we get on those horrendous "classical" music radio stations; with which Singaporeans are only too familiar.  I am well aware from my experience as a music examiner that nobody teaches students about programme building or programme planning.  Sadly, nobody seems to teach them about the value of sending an audience away wanting more.  What an awful thing, when someone has given up time and money to hear you perform, when they find themseleves wishing while the performance is still on, "I want to go home".



  1. LOL - I didn't quite mind the encore. No problem walking right out to beat the crowd if not interested in watching the encore too! Didn't like that one particular artiste was too proud to give one though.

    1. It is not PRIDE which that artiste showed - it was HUMILITY

  2. Did you hear about the pianist that gave 14 encores after his Rachmaninov Thrid Piano Concerto with the SSO in 2000? The orchestra had already gone home, but Andrei Gavrilov came out with the score of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier and proceeded to play the first seven Preludes and Fugues in succession (essentially 14 pieces in total!). He then turned to the audience and said, "I can go on to play the whole book, but I think the Victoria Concert Hall staff have to go home". Nearly the whole audience had stayed back to witness that feat, which took place on the exact day of J.S.Bach's 250th death anniversary. And the Bach was much better than the Rachmaninov. Go figure...

  3. As a Malaysian, and cello music lover, I'd welcome any encore from a cellist, doesn't matter if it clash with the concerto or not. It's just too rare to have cello program on MPO, max twice a year, to satisfy my 'lust' :)

    But of cause, an overdone encore force on the audience is very embarassing, I mean i feel ashamed for the orchestra or soloist...