Classical Music’s Naughty Secret

Let me let you in on a dirty little secret of the classical music industry: Encores are not a surprise.

I saw a question posted on a classical music subreddit recently where the poster was asking about why, when the audience was asking for an encore at the end of a concert, the orchestra and conductor ‘refused’ to give one. All sorts of theories were being put out, ranging from the possibly sensible (the orchestra have a bus to catch) to the esoteric (cultural differences and programming choices).

My little piece of insider knowledge: they probably didn’t do an encore because there wasn’t one programmed in.

There are actually two programmes for a concert. The one given or sold to the audience, containing the works, the biographies, photos, and ads for private music schools. And the one back stage: written in a kind of code it contains the call times, orchestrations, durations, and most up to date order of pieces. This is what gets sent to the PRS licensing people, this is what tells the stage manager when to retrieve the brass players from the pub. This is the actual concert, the shiny one is a best guess made by the marketing department a few weeks before rehearsals start.

When you think about it, of course encores have to be planned. The venue needs to know when the concert will finish. The orchestra need to rehearse the music. In the case of my career, someone needs to orchestrate the fun folk tune for this particular group of musicians (a process which starts a month or two before). Parts need to be printed, broadcasters need to be briefed, musicians need to be reminded to turn the page to the next piece.

With all this effort, no programmer is going to leave it to chance on whether the audience will ask loudly enough for it. We can predict whether there will be a round of applause big enough for the encore to be called months ahead, and the real trick is making it look spontaneous and responsive, like a magician forcing you to pick the 6 of diamonds.

Sometimes a soloist may have something prepared that they can bring out unaccompanied after a concerto, but the conductor will have asked what they have and they’ll have decided on something together and will wait to see if that atmosphere demands it, but that’s easy enough for one soloist. It’s usually a Bach caprice or Paganini variation: flashy, but doesn’t use up rehearsal time.

If the orchestra haven’t prepared something you are highly unlikely to ever get an encore, no matter how loudly you shout for it: it might not be appropriate to follow a requiem with Send in the Clowns, they might have run out of venue or rehearsal time, the entire brass and percussion section could already be halfway back down the M5. If they have prepared one, and it clearly isn’t wanted or called, for they might skip it.

In every other situation, they’ll do the encore because that’s whats on the program, and because it makes the concert better. Whether you want it or not is just your own problem.

The other dirty secret: they might have only played that piece you adore once before the concert. And someone in the orchestra is sight reading. It doesn’t make it any less good.