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Review: John Adams delivers a devil of a new concerto. Yuja Wang pounds it out

Review: John Adams delivers a devil of a new concerto. Yuja Wang pounds it out
Composer John Adams takes his bows flanked by pianist Yuja Wang and Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel on Thursday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, where they premiered Adams' concerto "Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?" (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

One of the most refreshing things about John Adams is that despite all of the hosannas and honors that he has accumulated, he wears it all lightly. That’s reflected in the irreverent titles for his compositions: “Gnarly Buttons,” “Son of Chamber Symphony,” “Roll Over Beethoven” and “American Berserk” among them.

So when it was announced that Adams would be writing a new piece for star pianist Yuja Wang and the Los Angeles Philharmonic for a world premiere at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Thursday night, he was ready. Would he call his new concerto — a belated successor to “Eros Piano” and “Century Rolls” — his Piano Concerto No. 3? Not a chance. Instead, he came up with this honey of a title: “Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?”

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Adams writes that he got the title from an article about Dorothy Day in an old issue of the New Yorker. Besides being funny, it’s true; very often in operas and elsewhere, the devil — or the idea of him — does get more than a fair share of memorable music compared with other characters.

The title also suggested Liszt’s “Totentanz” for piano and orchestra as a model, but Adams’ own totentanz (dance of the dead) for Wang comes from the core of some other planet. “Devil” divides itself into three fast-slow-fast sections and has a brittle, rhythmic, percussive agenda. Adams grabs us by the lapels from the outset, having his pianist pound out heavy chords that instantly recall Henry Mancini’s rumbling theme from “Peter Gunn.”

The piano is constantly busy throughout the 25-plus minutes, and even in the contemplative slow movement, caressed by Adams’ typical sustained strings, there is underlying tension and an impatient desire to get the engines going again. They eventually do in a dotted-rhythm groove that suggests rock ’n’ roll. An electric bass provides subtle underpinning on the low end. A detuned “honky tonk piano” part is called for — here, performed on a Nord synthesizer — but I could barely hear it from my orchestra seat.

Yuja Wang after premiering John Adams new concerto, “Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?”
Yuja Wang after premiering John Adams new concerto, “Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?” (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

On a first listen, Adams’ devil of a concerto wasn’t exactly brimming with good tunes (except for the steal from Mancini). But it did make a fine, energetic, jumping noise that could only have come from an American composer with an eye on popular culture.

As an encore, Wang played the brief, murmuring “China Gates” from near the beginning of Adams’ career (1977), showing how far he has come since those minimalist days. Gustavo Dudamel conducted with appropriate verve and swagger.

For some reason, Mahler has been played all over Southern California in the last week: Dudamel conducting the Ninth Symphony, Edo de Waart leading the Fourth Symphony in San Diego, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s “Das Lied von der Erde” and now the L.A. Phil this weekend with the First Symphony.

Dudamel’s tempos in the First have sped up considerably since his performances at his inaugural concert in 2009 and again in 2012. (His Ninth is now faster too.) At times, the ensemble sounded rough, even coarse, in some of the extroverted passages, driven harder than ever. But many of Dudamel’s fussier mannerisms are tamed, and he got his best payoff in his patient buildup toward the explosion of sunlight in the first movement and its exhilarating aftermath. Overall, it remains a young man’s tempestuous Mahler 1.

The L.A. Phil will take this program on tour March 15-22 in Seoul and Tokyo.

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L.A. Phil with Yuja Wang

Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $80-$258 (subject to change)

Info: (323) 850-2000, laphil.com

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