Encores are an adornment to concert life — like a dessert, completing a meal, or an after-dinner mint
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf: Sublime “Danny Boy” (Harry Pot / Anefo CC 1.0)
In New York lately, there have been many encores — more than usual. Encores are an adornment to concert life. They can be like a dessert, completing a meal. Or, if they are very short, they are more like an after-dinner mint. They give a performer a chance to let his hair down. Also, they give a performer a chance to play repertoire that might not make it onto a concert programme — because of brevity or novelty, for example. “The Ride of the Valkyries,” from Wagner’s Ring opera Die Walküre, is not exactly brief or novel. But the New York Philharmonic, under Jaap van Zweden, played it as an encore one night. As the music began, a man behind me muttered to his wife, “Flight of the Bumblebee.” Well, the Valkyrie ride does have a buzzy beginning, it’s true.
A different orchestra, the Czech Philharmonic, under Semyon Bychkov, played an all-Dvořák concert: a concerto and a symphony. Then the orchestra played a couple of Slavonic Dances by the same composer. These dances — charming, stirring, proud — might not make their way onto a programme proper. The next afternoon, the Czech Philharmonic played a Mahler symphony — No. 2, the “Resurrection”. You do not play an encore after this long and transcendent work, and the Czechs did not. And yet — I recall that, in Carnegie Hall many years ago, Thomas Quasthoff, the German bass-baritone, sang “Ich habe genug”, the holy Bach cantata. Afterwards, with a slight word of apology to the audience, he sang “Ol’ Man River”. (It was great.)
In Carnegie Hall recently, Denis Matsuev, the Russian pianist, launched into a virtual “second concert”, to borrow an old phrase. He played five encores, beginning with “Träumerei” (“Dreaming”), from Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood. This is Matsuev’s go-to first encore, and it was Vladimir Horowitz’s, too. Matsuev is paying homage, for one thing.
Also in Carnegie Hall recently, Juan Diego Flórez, the Peruvian tenor, walked out with a guitar after his printed programme was done. Victoria de los Angeles, the late, great Spanish soprano, used to do this, too. Sitting on a stool, Flórez sang and played “Bésame Mucho” and other such favorites. The audience beamed, sighed, and almost sang.
Often, a performer will please an audience with an encore from the country or culture of the audience. For British audiences, de los Angeles used to sing “Blow the Wind Southerly”. The words were unrecognisable, but the singing was unmistakable. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, the late, great German, used to sing “Danny Boy” (sublimely, heartbreakingly). In America, I have heard Olga Borodina, the Russian mezzo, sing “Summertime” — oddly, but one appreciates the gesture nonetheless.
I once heard a Russian choir in a New York church sing “My Lord, What a Morning” (the spiritual). It was unrecognisable at first. It could not have been more unidiomatic. But it also could not have been more touching. This stands as my favorite encore ever.