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Entertainment & Arts

Review: With Yuja Wang and John Adams, the ‘Devil’ is in the details

Yuja Wang
Chinese pianist Yuja Wang at her 2011 Hollywood Bowl debut.
(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

It has been eight years since Yuja Wang appeared at the Hollywood Bowl in a startling little orange dress. The Times’ photo of her went viral. An emerging young Chinese pianist instantly transformed into a glamorous star.

Since then Wang has become one of the world’s most recognizable and fittingly celebrated classical pianists. She has electrifying technique and musical taste. She also has become part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic family, one of Gustavo Dudamel’s favorite soloists.

Thursday night she was back at the Bowl. Everyone these days always waits in anticipation to see what she will wear. This time it was a clinging floor-length yellow gown, eye-catching as ever but hardly news. Were there a Times photo, there would be little reason for it to go viral.

There isn’t one, because Wang has begun demanding approval of all shots. She seems at the moment in an uncertain career makeover, changing management, sounding a little bored with the celebrity circuit in her interviews and wanting full control over that which she can’t control (everyone and his or her brother was snapping away on cellphones at the Bowl). She’s promisingly tried her hand at conducting, though she doesn’t seem to be pursuing it.

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If the yellow gown wasn’t news, Wang’s performance of John Adams’ new piano concerto, “Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?,” was. What has been the most disappointing aspect of Wang’s career up to now has been her laserlike focus on conventional repertory. She’s a dazzler, the performances invariably exciting while remaining true to the musical substance. Still, she can seem to have been largely about sexing up the past, with little attention to new music or working with the major composers of our time.

Here, though, is a concerto written for her, Dudamel and the L.A. Phil. The starriest of the L.A. Phil’s many centennial commissions, the score had its premiere in the winter at Walt Disney Concert Hall. The orchestra then took it on tour to Korea and Japan. Tuesday at the Bowl was a warm-up for the European premiere at the Edinburgh International Festival in early August. The concerto returns again this fall to Disney Hall in advance of the New York premiere.

All of this is to say that the L.A. Phil invested a lot in a work long before it was finished. The early reception was warm but with the meter moving slightly in the lukewarm direction. The “Devil” up to his old tricks. Engaging, but not earthshaking.

In Amsterdam for Adams’ rewrite of his latest opera, “Girls of the Golden West,” I missed the premiere of the concerto, catching up with it only on the KUSC broadcast, and hearing it live for the first time at the Bowl. It’s true, the “Devil” is up to his old tricks. But what a devil! And what tricks!

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Old tricks with Adams mean that he has long had a penchant for reinvention. He frequently starts with a historic style or a specific piece. That can be a Beethoven string quartet, Handel’s “Messiah” or, in his first piano concerto, “Eros Piano,” a response to Toru Takemitsu’s “riverrun,” which happened to be commissioned by the L.A. Phil. in 1985.

In “Devil,” the starting point is the funk of rollicking barrelhouse piano, which in an informal series of variations gets cut up, rhythmically and harmonically diffracted. Wang, who has been flirting with jazz and improvisation and can deliver as mean a “Rhapsody in Blue” as anyone out there these days, becomes here a study in rhythmic grit.

The Bowl camera crew does the obvious in focusing on her fingers, which are very hard to take your eyes off. But equally illuminating was watching the tension in her posture and the concentration on her face (which got its own close-ups). She has internalized Adams’ complex rhythmic passages to such a degree that they are part of her every fiber. For that to happen, every note has to matter.

Stillness and glitter have become another Wang trait that Adams uses in a resplendent, slow central section that heats up to a thumping rhythmic finale. This may be the most remarkable part of the concerto. The backbone is a driving orchestral accompaniment in a style that goes back to Adams’ first opera, “Nixon in China.” But overlaying that is Wang barrelhousing like nobody’s business. Old Adams breaks apart just as old honky-tonk had earlier, the old becoming new.

With Dudamel and the L.A. Phil having had time to get comfortable with this “Devil” and Wang showing her potential for moving music forward, the L.A. Phil has a winner.

The program began with Samuel Barber’s ubiquitous “Adagio for Strings.” If the Devil gets all the best tunes, in this context Barber was the devil. He’s been forgiven over the decades for being out of step with his old-fashioned Romanticism in the 1950s and 1960s. But some have never forgiven him for his efforts to hold back American musical progress.

Dudamel ended with an unusually gracious reading of Tchaikovsky’s terse Fourth Symphony, the angst equation all but removed. The performance glided, played with supreme elegance, as though it was written as one 45-minute-long musical sentence.

For the pizzicato strings in the Scherzo, Dudamel put his right hand in pants pocket and conducted by flicking his head and by facial expressions. We tend to overrate Tchaikovsky’s emotional worldview and underrate his reliance on pleasure principles. Dudamel took exceptional pleasure.

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Then he took even greater pleasure. Since this will be a tour program, it ended with an encore. Most will surely recognize Sousa’s “Liberty Bell” March as the “Monty Python” theme music. But even the Pythons couldn’t have made that old devil, Sousa, this entertaining.


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