By Zachary Wolfe, The New York Times, March 8, 2019
Adams: Uneasily Fascinating
LOS ANGELES — After Yuja Wang had finished playing the premiere of Mr. Adams’s concerto at Walt Disney Concert Hall here, and the applause wouldn’t stop, she returned to the stage for an encore.
She played a piece by — who else? — John Adams. Dating back to 1977, “China Gates” is one of his earliest works, a short solo that’s a calm, steady precipitation of eighth notes: sometimes a smiling sunshower, sometimes a melancholy drizzle.
Coming right after the new concerto, “Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?,” it gave a moving summary of how far Mr. Adams has come over 40 years, in musical complexity and emotional nuance. And also how much his preoccupations of those long-ago days — tension between rhythmic regularity and tremors of instability; simultaneous propulsion and reflection — still interest him today.
Given its premiere by Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which will tour it widely, “Must the Devil” is an uneasy experience: restless — indeed, relentless — but uncertain, pensive even when it’s peppy. Written during a period in which Mr. Adams also made a new opera, “Girls of the Golden West,” about the dark side of the California Gold Rush, the concerto comes across as a companion work.
Another gloomy, even bitter, study in Americana, its most distinctive bit of orchestration is a part for honky-tonk piano (ideally a detuned upright, but on Thursday conjured electronically, and far too weakly) that evokes the saloons — and, implicitly, the chauvinistic illusions — of Hollywood westerns, while coming across as a devilish shadow of the “real” solo piano.
In three parts, played as a single movement of not quite half an hour, “Must the Devil” begins in a sudden surge and chugs along industriously but with stumbles — a machine that fails to find its groove. The music builds in intricacy but remains oddly reticent, with unsettling snaps and buzzes (“gritty, funky, but in strict tempo,” Mr. Adams indicates for this first section) from the double basses and an electric bass, located on opposite sides of the orchestra.
Relaxing into the second part with a lulling motif for bassoon and strings — you might think of Ravel — “Must the Devil” troubles the piano’s serenity with a sustained low tremble in the basses, and a disturbing plunk of honky-tonk. There’s early Adams (and the process Minimalism that preceded him) in the melodic thread forming in repeated fits and starts, trying to emerge and complete itself. In passages, the soloist seems to be trying out a kind of rag, but while the rhythm has a gentle, low-slung swing, the piano never finds its footing.
The orchestra gently eggs the soloist on into the third section, inaugurated with frosty Adamsian fragments of trumpet fanfare. But there’s little sense of the triumph — or, at least, the reveling in extravagance and difficulty — of earlier finales by this composer. I found this conclusion much like the rest of the piece: anxious, fascinating, sad.
The ending comes all at once: The hubbub suddenly drops away, leaving a single toll of a bell. Has someone died? Something? A culture? A country?
Ms. Wang was an unfailing, cool to the touch, detailed soloist. Each note, even in a fast run, was precisely considered: a slippery smooth note followed by a diamond-hard one. The almost ominously immaculate quality of her playing was well suited to Mr. Adams’s dark fantasia, which offers virtuosity while staying — intentionally, I think — wary of its, and any, thrills. (There’s tellingly no cadenza to speak of.)
After intermission, Mr. Dudamel’s interpretation of Mahler’s First Symphony recalled aspects of “Must the Devil”: the off-kilter quality and troubled lyricism of the first movement, the ruefully swirling third. But, in its straightforward — even bland — healthy-mindedness, this Mahler more than anything acted as a kind of peace offering after Mr. Adams’s beautifully disconcerting concerto.