John Adams, Yuja Wang, and the LA Phil Give the Devil His Due

Jim Farber on March 11, 2019
Yuja Wang | Credit: Ian Douglas

By definition the concerto is the realm of the superstar, the virtuoso who can take the possibilities of her instrument to the limit — to the point that some have been accused of being in league with the devil.

So it seems only appropriate that John Adams’s new piano concerto, which had its world premiere performances this past weekend at Disney Hall featuring Yuja Wang at the keyboard with the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, should be titled Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?

In the grand demonic tradition of Paganini and Liszt, Yuja Wang is a performer who embraces the spotlight with a combination of star power showmanship and almost superhuman, dare we say demonic, ability. Before the concert even started, John Adams and host Veronica Krausas had as much fun dishing about what Wang’s couture for the evening might be as they did discussing Adams’s music. Neither disappointed. She came onstage in a skin-tight, single-strap, emerald-green minidress, while Adams provided a concerto that certainly makes the 21st century roll.

John Adams (Photo by Deborah O' Grady)
John Adams | Credit: Deborah O' Grady

In a centenary season that abounds with premiere commissions, none was more highly anticipated than Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? And it is a zinger. It combines familiar structural motives and instrumental effects with the edgy feel of a hard-boiled Raymond Chandler novel.

The concerto unfolds in a single movement with melodic cross-fades as partitions. The two outer sections, which abound in percussive, staccato power, frame a nocturne-like central movement that glistens like streetlights off wet pavement. It doesn’t sound like any other Adams composition and reminded me of Bernard Herrmann’s score for Taxi Driver.

The concerto’s “noir” atmosphere is established at the very beginning with the piano declaiming a propulsive opening theme (marked “gritty and funky”) that Adams acknowledges was inspired by Henry Mancini’s music for the TV series, Peter Gunn (1961–1962).

Wang is a powerhouse at the keyboard. Her playing recalls Mohammed Ali’s famous description of his style, “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” In the opening section she grabbed hold of that Peter Gunn theme and rode it like a getaway car — taking us for a not-so Short Ride in a Fast Machine. Whether her faster-than-the-speed-limit approach was the ideal tempo is up for debate, but it was unquestionably exhilarating.

In Adams’s description of the concerto he explains the dynamic pulse of the first movement’s ignition system. “Even with a steady groove, the meter of 9/8 divides into an even 4/4 plus one extra 8th-note punctuation, providing an off-kilter lurch.”

The theme is heard in ever more complex variations as the orchestration becomes more prominent. Adams also adds two unusual instruments to the mix— a six-string, electric bass guitar and a detuned, honky-tonk upright piano. Unfortunately, the Philharmonic (which is taking the concerto on the road in its upcoming Asian tour) decided it wasn’t cost-effective to lug along an upright piano. So, a midi synthesizer was used instead. Let’s hope that at some point the real instrument will take its place. The orchestration includes several evocative effects, including snapped notes like gun shots in the low strings, car horn blasts from the horns, and a sinister, growling trombone.

The central section is one of Adams’s most evocative interludes. The electric bass provides a dark, shadowy bottom to the strings legato expressive sheen, as the piano casts a web of glistening melodic threads up above.

Gustavo Dudamel with the LA Phil | Credit: Sam Comen

But soon the nocturne idyll is broken and the powerhouse drive of the Peter Gunn theme returns, marked “Expressive Swing,” and the concerto takes off in a final section of pure energy.

Following the robust ovation for her opening night performance on Thursday, Wang returned to the stage for an encore of Adams’s China Gates. It was a perfect choice, pristine and gem-like. She’s scheduled to play 18 performances of the concerto, including the Asian tour and an appearance this summer at the Hollywood Bowl. She will then pass the baton to Jeremy Denk.

When asked what was next, Adams said he is working on a short piece called I Can Still Dance to commemorate Michael Tilson Thomas’s retirement from the San Francisco Symphony.