The problem with the planned encore

At some point, aren’t you just milking it?

A few concerts in the last year have brought this to mind, and I’m genuinely interested in what our generally quiet readers have to say.  Our readers tend to respond by email rather than via blog comment, and that’s perfectly OK: you’re always welcome to Contact us online. Thoughts, anyone?

The definition

For the sake of argument, let’s define “planned encore”:  this is when a performer or ensemble prepares one or more pieces (I’ve seen up to four) to be performed after the printed program is done. It’s usually intended to be a surprise treat for the audience, but there are, like all human endeavors, a wide variety of agendas and manifestations of this practice.

One recent execution

One concert this year finished, allowed a brief period for applause for the performers (perhaps thirty seconds, but probably not), and then the conductor escorted the soloists off the stage.  Even before he had set foot in the wings, his choir had turned around, put down their scores, and picked up a completely separate binder in preparation for the encore.  I don’t remember what the piece was: it was a fairly standard, well-known choral chestnut that was not announced, given no context, and didn’t seem to have anything to do with the event.  He just wanted to do another piece.  I found out later that he had worked the choir very hard on this work, and they didn’t get it either.

The problems

While this isn’t the most extreme example, it brought up enough issues with the forced encore that it will serve as a general example, or at least a starting point.:

  • In this instance, the already long program was being played to an audience of mostly neophytes. Enthusiastic as they had been throughout the evening, many people were very ready to go home, and as the conductor returned to the podium and lifted his baton, there was a sort of resigned, slow-motion dance as attendees pivoted and returned to their seats for the duration.  What caught my attention was the similarity in the looks on several faces near me: they weren’t particularly thrilled.
  • What this conductor had done, particularly since he had made no announcement to justify the extension or explain his thinking, was that he started a new clock in the minds of the listeners, and one that was ticking far more quickly than it had previously:  “How long is this piece?”  “How many encores are they going to do?”  “Why did they choose this?”  “When can I go home?” 
  • More seasoned audiences might be more patient, but this group had already been through more than they expected, and weren’t sure what they might be subjected to next.  The intent had certainly not been to make the audience feeling trapped, manipulated or even sheepish for having wanted to leave, but that was clearly the result in enough cases to draw attention to the matter.
  • The sense of anticlimax, after a solid performance of a hallowed masterwork, was unfortunate.  Way to ruin a great finale!
  • What bothered several people (and was heard discussed afterward) was the truncation of bows for the professional soloists.  They were offered no additional chance to receive their well-deserved praise, and it seemed a little rude. I had to agree with this one.
  • In this case, but also in many others I’ve seen over the years, the encore was about the conductor’s wants and needs, not the overall scope or theme of the program.  It didn’t add anything except that he wanted to do it.  He was thrilled, but it cost everyone else time, energy and some enjoyment.

One conclusion

Few encores are so surprising, so delightful, that they end better than a truly well-crafted program.  If a concert is so successful that it merits a few more minutes, playing a small section of the best bit from the concert can be a nice touch. (That is what “encore” refers to, after all.) But pulling out a brand-new piece makes me, at least, want to wag my finger at you and send you a copy of the poster we sometimes share with coaching clients and workshop attendees: INAY (It’s Not About You) is a mantra that all of us should bear in mind, both when we’re crafting our art and when we’re facing rejection. Consider the other people involved. That moment of thoughtfulness might help prevent uncomfortable moments like the one above.

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