Magazine | December 31, 2018, Issue

Bon-Bons for All

Juan Diego Flórez singing encores in Carnegie Hall on November 18, 2018 (Chris Lee)

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. If they are very short, they are more like an after-dinner mint. Either way, they should leave a concertgoer feeling satisfied.

Encores serve a number of purposes. They give a performer a chance to let his hair down. They give him a chance to play repertoire that might not make it onto his regular program — because of brevity, for example, or even goofiness.

“The Ride of the Valkyries,” from Wagner’s Ring opera Die Walküre, is not exactly brief and not goofy (although you could imagine it played that way). But the New York Philharmonic played it as an encore not long ago. As it began, a man in front of me murmured to his wife, “Flight of the Bumblebee.” In his defense, the “Ride” does have a buzzy beginning.

“Encore” means, literally, “again.” In Europe, they often say “Bis!” Give it to me a second time. In our modern era, an encore is usually something else, something in addition. But it occasionally is the same piece again, a true encore, if you will. In the course of a recent recital, Hilary Hahn played Bach’s Violin Partita in D minor, which includes the much loved, transcendental Chaconne. At the end of her recital, she said, “Do you want to hear the Chaconne again?” They did.

“Play it again, Sam,” goes a line from Casablanca. At least that’s the way we remember it. In reality, Ilsa says, “Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By.’” And, after a bit of resistance, he does.

You will occasionally get a true encore in an opera house, too. It is traditional to reprise “Va, pensiero,” the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from Verdi’s Nabucco. People love it so, and expect the repetition. Encores by soloists are basically verboten at the Metropolitan Opera — although management relents from time to time. In 2014, Javier Camarena, the Mexican tenor, encored his aria in La cenerentola (which is Rossini’s version of Cinderella). It was such an unusual event, it made news.

More recently, in Carnegie Hall, the Czech Philharmonic played two concerts. The orchestra was marking the centennial of Czech independence. The first concert was all-Dvorak, consisting of a concerto and a symphony. But for an encore came a Slavonic Dance (by the same composer). And then another. These dances, full of national charm and verve, might not make their way into a program proper. The next afternoon, the Czechs played but one work: Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection.” You do not play an encore after this great, long, surpassing work, and the Czechs did not.

There has long been a rule, too — an informal rule — concerning Beethoven’s last piano sonata, the Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111. You must not play an encore after it. It is a Final Word. And yet and yet . . .

One of the most interesting encores I ever heard came from Thomas Quasthoff, the German bass-baritone. He had sung “Ich habe genug,” a holy cantata of Bach, a Final Word. Then, with a few remarks of apology to the audience, he sang . . . “Ol’ Man River.” It was wonderful, too.

Maxim Vengerov, the Russian violinist, played a recital in Carnegie Hall recently. After his printed program, he played three encores — three pieces that are sort of a violinist’s birthright, or in his blood. Vengerov played a Kreisler piece (the Caprice viennois); Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise, in the arrangement by Heifetz; and a Brahms Hungarian Dance, in an arrangement by Joachim. Thus does Vengerov connect himself to a long tradition, and he continues the line (splendidly).

Some musicians play an encore at the drop of a hat — without really being asked. They don’t even let an audience member scurry out. I consider that cheating. Sometimes, musicians have to be implored — and even then they might not grant an encore. Some would consider that cheating (but I sort of like the imperial touch).

Anyone would welcome encores by Denis Matsuev, the Russian pianist. He gives a “second concert,” to borrow an old phrase. That is, he performs a slew of encores, as he did in Carnegie Hall last month. He began with “Träumerei” (“Dreaming”), from Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood. That is his go-to first encore. It was Horowitz’s, too. So, in addition to playing Schumann, Matsuev is paying homage to Horowitz.

Other musicians have their own go-to first encores. Murray Perahia, the American pianist, has always gone to a Schubert impromptu: the one in E flat, Op. 90, No. 2. Audiences expect it, and he plays the piece consummately. Leontyne Price, the American soprano, always went to a Puccini aria: “Tu? Tu? Piccolo iddio!” from Madama Butterfly. She also had a stable of other regular encores.

She let them all hang out, or many of them, in her final Carnegie Hall recital, which was in January 1991. She sang eight of them: opera arias and spirituals. Then, with the house lights already up, but a core of the audience stubbornly remaining, she came out and sang a ninth: “America the Beautiful,” unaccompanied. (This recital was converted into a record, or a CD, or whatever we were calling them in that period.)

Back to Denis Matsuev last month. He played a couple of other “Horowitz” encores too — including Scriabin’s Etude in D-sharp minor. Horowitz made that piece famous all over the world. Then Matsuev played a piece he has adopted as a signature: “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” from Grieg’s Peer Gynt, souped up (arranged) by Grigory Ginzburg, a Russian pianist who lived in the first half of the 20th century.

I told the friend sitting next to me that Matsuev would not leave before playing an improvisation on “Take the A Train.” That is his signature final encore. It leaves the audience gasping and cheering. But on this night, he left them gasping and cheering with Grieg-Ginzburg.

In years past, albums of encores were reliable sellers. There was more than one Horowitz compilation. On these albums, you could hear Schumann, Scriabin, and the rest, but also the pianist’s own concoctions: his variations on a Carmen theme, for example, or his bells-and-whistles transcription of The Stars and Stripes Forever. Alicia de Larrocha, the Spanish pianist, made a classic album: Spanish Encores. It went from Baroque pieces (by Soler, for instance) to showpieces (by Turina et al.).

The recording industry has undergone big changes, and albums of encores are not au courant. But in 2006, Leif Ove Andsnes, the Norwegian pianist, made a superb one, with the title “Horizons.” Twenty-two little pieces from all over.

Sir Thomas Beecham called them “bon-bons.” Specifically, that was his name for light, amusing orchestral pieces, which served perfectly as encores. The great British conductor recorded many of them, which the public happily snapped up, and which you can snap up on YouTube and elsewhere today.

In Carnegie Hall a few weeks ago, Juan Diego Flórez, the Peruvian tenor, gave a recital. When it came time for encores, he walked out with a guitar and perched on a stool. Victoria de los Ángeles, the late, great Spanish soprano, used to do this too. Flórez sang (and played) several Spanish-language songs, beginning with the most popular of them all: “Bésame mucho.”

His Latin fans in the audience got a little rowdy, and he bantered with them, entertainingly. Classical musicians often feel free to talk to their audience at encore time (and increasingly, during a recital or concert itself, which is a pet peeve of mine). (I’ll spare you that essay, for now.)

Preceding Flórez in Carnegie Hall by a few weeks was Elina Garanca, the Latvian mezzo-soprano. Before her second encore, she said, “Now you’ll know why I wore a red dress!” Then she sang the Habanera from Carmen. Garanca is a famous Carmen, and Carmen is traditionally clad in red (and black).

Before the Habanera, Garanca sang a song from her homeland, Latvia. That’s what an artist will do: present something from her homeland. Leontyne Price always sang spirituals, in addition to every other kind of song, in every other language. She summed up her thinking this way: “I have sung your songs; now you will hear mine.”

Conversely, or in the next breath, artists will present something from the host country, or host culture. For British audiences, de los Ángeles used to sing “Blow the Wind Southerly.” Her English was atrocious — but her singing enchanting. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, the great German soprano, used to sing “Danny Boy.” With apologies to John McCormack and other tenors, Irish or not, there has never been a better singer of that song. She was heartbreaking in it.

Many years ago, Olga Borodina, the great Russian mezzo, sang a program of Russian art songs in New York. The final encore was not a Russian art song: It was “Summertime,” from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. She was not what you would call idiomatic. But the gesture was touching.

Not long after, I heard a Russian choir, also in New York. They performed in a church. Their program was Russian sacred music and folk songs. They did more of the same, for encores. When they started what turned out to be their last encore, my ears tingled. The music was oddly familiar, yet foreign-sounding. It dawned on me: The choir was singing “My Lord, What a Morning” (the spiritual). Their English was barely recognizable. The style was all wrong. But I have seldom heard anything so moving.

–This piece sprang from a smaller piece by the author in Standpoint magazine.

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