Encores? Hilary Hahn is happy to oblige

A recital without an encore is like a meal without dessert. Orchestral concerts usually skip dessert, unless the orchestra is on tour. (On the road, Valery Gergiev, conductor of the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra, always has five or six popular short pieces ready.) Sometimes encores are given after a concerto. Some conductors, however, think it’s rude to make an orchestra (and maestro) wait while a soloist basks in extra applause.

In fact, the whole art and practice of the encore is rather complicated, and subject to debate among performers.

The word “encore” originally meant “again” — to repeat what we’ve just heard. After Liszt, who invented and coined the term “solo recital,” the emphasis was on “more.” Two or three seems to be the modern-day average, but pianist Grigory Sokolov has been known to play as many as six. Pianist Alexander Lonquich was once called back three times, each time performing, in order, one of the three movements from a Haydn sonata. Others, like violinist Sarah Chang, often pass at encore time.

But since Liszt’s day, encores have become a formalized part of recitals. When none are offered, listeners are likely to feel cheated.

No one is likely to feel cheated on Tuesday, when violinist Hilary Hahn plans to perform 13 encores at Walt Disney Concert Hall as part of an ongoing project called “In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores.” The project began to take shape while Hahn, 31, was thinking about the encores she had played over the last decade.


“Few of them were new,” she said recently, speaking by phone from New York. “I wanted to bring a lot of contemporary composers together to show the range of music being written today. Encores popular today used to be in the main program. They were showcased.”

Without breaking up the movements in her Bach, Beethoven and Brahms program, Hahn, with pianist Valentina Lisitsa, will perform 13 selections — some in the first half, the rest after intermission — from the 26 encores she commissioned. Hahn will tour next season with the remaining 13, plus a 27th encore to be chosen from an online contest.

The composers on Tuesday’s program include a mix of known and less well-known names: Lera Auerbach, Soren Nils Eichberg, Jennifer Higdon, Bun-Ching Lam, Nico Muhly, Einojuhani Rautavaara and Somei Satoh. “I spent hours listening,” Hahn said, “and picked composers whose work particularly spoke to me. You go with your instincts.”

Hahn asked each composer for an acoustic violin and piano score two to five minutes long. Almost all accepted her invitation. “A few wound up with arrangements for solo violin,” she said. “There are some beautiful slower pieces, some very technically challenging faster ones — a whole range.”

Hahn’s project is firmly in a tradition carried on by Jascha Heifetz. Early in Heifetz’s career, circa 1920, “encores were given freely, even in the middle of a program,” Boris Schwarz wrote in “Great Masters of the Violin.” “On demand, pieces were repeated.” Heifetz, a major exponent of new music, was celebrated for his encores, including virtuoso showpieces like Dinicu’s “Hora staccato,” which he transcribed for violin and piano.

“Violinists have a very personal relationship to the encores they play,” Hahn said. “They become either calling cards, a way to uncover the past, or they become indicative of the person’s repertoire preferences.”

Cellist Johannes Moser called Hahn’s project “a great idea,” especially since some of the encores can be arranged for other string instruments and piano. “It’s so bizarre that after the Romantic era, the art of writing an encore, at least for cello, got lost,” Moser said. “There’s always going to be ‘Flight of the Bumble Bee’ — it seems to work on every instrument — but I can’t recall a lot of great encores written in the last 40 years. So a project like Hilary’s is a very much needed upgrade.”

For Moser, encores are an opportunity to “go to a place we haven’t been yet that evening.” But, he added, using the example of Richard Strauss’ “Don Quixote,” where the solo cello portrays the knight, sometimes an encore makes no sense. “After the most beautiful death in music history, it would be almost necrophiliac to come back to life with an encore.”

Pianist Jeremy Denk agreed that “it’s very hard to imagine playing anything that wouldn’t be disrespectful” after a deeply emotional work, like Beethoven’s last piano sonata. This fall he’s learning a vintage encore, Hummel’s knuckle-busting E-flat Rondo. “It’s the most ridiculously irreverent thing you’ve ever heard, but it’s so great and life-loving,” Denk said.

Until recently, Denk preferred simply to repeat a movement from a sonata on his program — a practice that used to be customary for soloists and orchestras alike. In 1786, audiences demanded a repeat of movements from Mozart’s “Prague” Symphony. The second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 was famously encored in 1813.

Conductor Gergiev noted that little more than a century ago, fast movements from Tchaikovsky’s symphonies were routinely repeated in St. Petersburg and Moscow. “It would be very unusual if the public would allow me to do it now,” he said.

The conductor said the practice, which also included show-stopping encores of opera arias, ended as the legacy of recorded music grew. “The public knows what to expect,” he said. “But encores will be around long after we go.”

The cellist Alisa Weilerstein sees greater restraint in encores these days. “Rubinstein and Horowitz played endless encores,” Weilerstein said. “Audiences don’t ask for that anymore, and that’s kind of sad. I’m always gratified when the audience isn’t running off to the parking lot.”

For trumpeter Alison Balsom, there’s no real encore tradition for her instrument. “There aren’t many of us,” she said. “You have to save something for an encore, because physically the trumpet is so demanding.”

Early in her career, Balsom didn’t plan for encores. “I was in South America, where there was a very enthusiastic audience, and they just kept clapping. And I had nothing prepared. Then I heard booing. It was a terrible feeling. I would never make that mistake again.”

For singers, encore time takes on a different dimension. “What everybody really wants to hear are the encores,” baritone Thomas Hampson said. “But whatever I do, it’s going to remain in the predominant musical language of the recital. If I’m doing American songs, it might be Barber’s gorgeous ‘Sure on This Shining Night.’”

Encores go in and out of fashion, something that soprano Christine Brewer shows on her latest CD from Hyperion, “Echoes of Nightingales.” She makes an eloquent case for reviving many long out-of-print encores. “My first voice teacher collected these songs for years,” Brewer said. “They’re great songs that shouldn’t be forgotten, like Edwin McArthur’s ‘Night,’ written in the ‘50s for Kirsten Flagstad.”

Brewer feels a personal connection to these songs. At encore time, “it’s important to let your hair down a bit to let the audience see what makes you tick — what kind of music brings you joy,” Brewer said.

And sometimes the joy comes in unexpected ways. Hahn said her favorite encore moment occurs when she returns to the stage and sees pleasantly surprised people stuck in the aisles.

“They don’t realize I can see them in mid-step,” Hahn said, laughing. “‘Oh, I want to hear this, but my seat is gone.’ They try and look natural, but they don’t have any place to sit. It’s really cute, because people do like encores.”