"Why don't they play encores anymore?" I was asked by a concertgoer some weeks ago.
Well, of course, many encores are still given at local concerts. But the question reflected an uneasiness about something that once seemed everywhere but now seems to be disappearing.
In fact, uncertainty about encores would seem to be an essential element in encores. They are not listed in the program; the performer has not promised to play them. They are supposed to be spontaneous, a whim of the moment, and something of a surprise.
I think that original question about encores was in part set off by the Chicago Symphony concert this spring, at the end of which Riccardo Muti, in the middle of an ovation, waved goodbye, and the evening ended without an encore. Some people expressed their disappointment to me afterward.
My own feeling was that the orchestra and conductor were at least three hours from their beds, so one should sympathize with them. But the total playing time of that concert was only an hour and 15 minutes, and the last work played, Ludwig van Beethoven's Fourth Symphony, was not overwhelmingly arduous. On the other hand, an encore after Beethoven's Ninth Symphony would be unthinkable.
From my experience, most visiting orchestras play an encore, and even more. Such ensembles want to make the best possible impression — and maybe want to be invited back. You can usually spot when an encore is coming. There is more music on the stands, and brass players come back on stage during the final applause. And there is sometimes an earnest dialog between conductor and concertmaster about whether to play an encore.
Symphony concerts tend to be serious occasions, and the final work of the evening may be a tragic one. That's when the right kind of encore can be like the perfect dessert after a superb meal. It can say to an audience, "You have patiently sat through an hourlong symphony, now here is something just for fun!" and that is when Johannes Brahms' "Hungarian Dance No. 5" can send an audience out into the night with that special glow.
Encores appear to be alive and well at solo instrumental recitals. Itzhak Perlman, at his last appearance here, made a comedy routine about picking his encores, and his accompanist joined in the fun. He was following the tradition of old-time recitalists when encores were the real substance of the evening.
But recitals have become more serious affairs. After a weighty program of long sonatas, an encore might now seem frivolous.
What to play is even more intriguing than whether to play an encore. The dazzling display piece, "Sabre Dance," or "Ritual Dance of Fire," can bring down the house, but if the artist is looking for a good exit line, try "Claire de Lune." The audience will love it, and will probably accept it as a "good night kiss." But an encore should be short. Pianist Rudolph Serkin once, as a sort of joke, played the whole "Goldberg Variations" as encore — and that surely cleared out the concert hall.
Then we have the phenomenon of the diva's theme song. At her last appearance here, Rene Fleming was not allowed to leave until she sang "O Silver Moon" from Antonin Dvorak's opera "Rusalka."
Sergei Rachmaninoff was said to be very angry at his audience's insistence at hearing yet once more his famous "Prelude in C-Sharp Minor" as encore. Such is the price of writing a hit number!
The word "encore" means basically "again" in French, and in former times it meant that opera audiences demanded that the singer repeat a favorite aria. Arturo Toscanini stamped out that tradition when he was head of La Scala, Milan, in 1898-1903, but it seems to be seeping back in at the Met.
As a critic, my problem is to have an artist announce an encore from the stage in a difficult-to-understand manner, and then off I go, after the concert, in search of an answer. But there are satisfactions in the quest. My reactions to a concert are only opinions, but the identity of an encore is a fact!
John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the University of Illinois. He can be reached at email@example.com.