Yuja Wang Unveils Diabolical Adams Piano Concerto

Yuja Wang was glued to her iPad for the world premiere of John Adams’ ‘Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?,’ which she will take to Asia with Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  (Photo by Norbert Kniat for DG)
By Rick Schultz

LOS ANGELES – Watching Yuja Wang perform the premiere of John Adams’ Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? for piano and orchestra on March 7 in Walt Disney Concert Hall was a humanizing experience. Here was one of the technical dynamos of our time, a pianist for whom Beethoven’s Hammerklavier seems child’s play, actually using the score.

Indeed, Wang’s eyes rarely moved from her iPad. She sometimes even showed some effort in negotiating Adams’ tricky changes of meter and zigzagging chromatic passages. To see her so studiously applying herself offered a rare peek into her process.

Untangling complex scores doesn’t come easy, but like conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who led the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the premiere, Wang does it better than most.

Adams said the concerto’s name was “a good title just waiting for a piece.” (Vern Evans)

Adams wrote the score for Wang, and he gives her a non-stop workout for a bit over 25 minutes. Forget about the devil having all the good tunes. He likely had a hand in devising this diabolical work.

Must the Devil was initially inspired by the title’s provocative quote, which may have been said by Martin Luther. It was “a good title just waiting for a piece,” Adams noted in the program.

Oddly, there aren’t many memorable tunes in this work. Perhaps the devil does have them. One variation fleetingly echoes Henry Mancini’s thumping theme from Peter Gunn. Other than that, the percussively restless Must the Devil offers nothing especially hummable.

Must the Devil is Adams’ third score for piano and orchestra, belatedly following the rollicking Century Rolls (1996) and his darkly sensuous Eros Piano (1989). Like Eros, Must the Devil is also rather dark, but far more unsettling in nature as the textural density in the orchestra gradually increases.

Under Dudamel and the LA Phil, the Adams opus resembled a rhapsody. (Sam Comen)

Part of this disconcerting quality comes from the fact that piano and orchestra don’t seem to find a compelling relationship. Contrast is minimal with little dialogue between the two forces. The score is in one continuous movement with three connected sections. There are nods to Liszt (especially his Totentanz), Gershwin, and Ravel. But while its fast-slow-fast structure acknowledges the concerto tradition, Must the Devil might better be characterized as a rhapsody or symphony for piano and orchestra.

Still, whatever one calls it, from its opening outburst, Adams’ score commands our attention. Wang delivered a series of implacable octaves so vehemently it was hard to hear the orchestra, even when it included ten double basses stage left, plus an electric bass on the right.

Reportedly, Dudamel’s been working on the Philharmonic’s ability to play various levels of pianissimo; I sometimes had to lean forward to hear what the orchestra was doing. Or perhaps it was just Wang’s sheer keyboard power.

Incidentally, a detuned honky-tonk piano is asked for in the score, one that would produce a “slightly sour” sound quality. Instead, a Nord synthesizer was employed, proving a poor and barely audible substitute. It’s a mystery why the orchestra didn’t use a honky-tonk piano in Disney Hall. But since the synthesizer is cheaper and easier to transport, it’s understandable why it’s going on the orchestra’s upcoming (March 15-22) tour in Seoul and Tokyo.

After that diabolical start, Must the Devil became more rhythmically fragmented, adding occasional off-kilter touches like an extra eighth note to passages you think have settled into some sort of regularity. In the slow movement, Wang’s piano part became more spare and anxious in its ruminations, with sustained chromatic parallel octaves in the Philharmonic’s strings adding support to what increasingly sounded like a one-sided conversation.

On first listen, the slow section sounded reticent and unremarkable. But that may be because the repose feels so fleeting, arriving crunched between busy outer sections, which include score markings like “Gritty, Funky” and “twitchy, bot-like.”

Still, Adams’ textural variety and shifts in meter and tempo pull us in and keep us off-balance. Wang’s alternately brittle and lyrical playing also conjured a pervasive sense of fragmentation and unresolved tension.

Since Dudamel, Wang, and Adams are stars in the classical world, the union would appear close to ideal. But it’s possible that Adams, who has become a fine conductor, might have taken more chances. For example, the final section’s rocking 12/8 rhythm, marked “Obsession/Swing,” could have been more energetically articulated – it should have swung more. As it was, the orchestra’s contribution at times sounded muted (perhaps intentionally), even tentative.

Headed for Asia May 15-22, Dudamel and the LA Phil take the concerto and Mahler Symphonies No. 1 and 9. (Sam Comen)

After intermission, there was nothing tentative about Dudamel’s exciting reading of Mahler’s First Symphony, which is being taken on the Asia tour along with the Ninth, which I heard on Feb. 28. Better suited to Dudamel’s temperament, Mahler’s melodic First came off more convincingly than the more harmonically challenging Ninth. That performance, particularly the long concluding Adagio, proved more gestural than deeply involving.

Luckily, the Mahler First ends triumphantly. Dudamel guided the orchestra through an unusually tender and fluent rendition of the third-movement funeral march, which can become too ponderous. Though the outer movements were sometimes on the overly raucous side, a jigsaw of sounds looking for deeper integration, Dudamel’s sensitive layering of sonorities in the energetic finale revealed one of many glories in Mahler’s score.

Rick Schultz writes about classical music for the Los Angeles Times and the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.