“There were only two moments of true, reflective stillness during last night’s Los Angeles Philharmonic program at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. One occurred when pianist Yuja Wang held the audience spellbound with her diaphanous reading of John Adams’s “China Gates” for solo piano, distilling every ounce of neoimpressionist perfume from this early-career work. She played this piece as an encore after the world premiere of Adams’s latest, an L.A.-Philharmonic-commissioned score, the piano concerto “Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?”, which provided the evening’s other instance of rapt repose.
During the concerto’s slow middle section — this is a single-movement work — the piano line treaded a cool, quiet path through a landscape of heavy-breathing basses and woodwinds murmuring the kinds of sinister melodies Bernard Herrmann might have used to underscore a Hitchcock heroine wandering into mortal peril. Wang’s phrasing here was clear, chaste and feather-light, proving yet again that she is as impressive for her poetic sensibilities as for her pyrotechnic dazzle.
Not that “Must the Devil” lacked YouTube-worthy moments of keyboard bravura in its explosive outer movements. Wang (for whom Adams wrote the piece) dashed off difficult writing, still practically wet on the page, with the sort of brash confidence and technical finish you’d expect to hear after years of playing this music. (And she deserves an honorary degree from MIT for having to count all the punishing, irregular meters that filled Adams’s score.) L.A. Philharmonic music director Gustavo Dudamel matched her in sheer verve. Much of the orchestral writing answers, amplifies and jams on what the piano line initiates, and Dudamel made sure that musical conversation unfolded with machine-chiseled accuracy.”
“The pianist agilely splayed her hands up and down the keyboard of the black, open-top Steinway perched at the edge of the stage as she chased and pinned down Adams’ unusual chord progressions. Rumbling, jagged riffs thundered off-kilter, punctuated by stark spikes of horns.
Wang dialed up jazzy, circular flurries of notes on the piano’s higher keys even as a feeling of urgent anxiety welled up from the rest of the orchestra. At times, the musicians in the string section clicked and clattered their bows in unison as a form of percussion. Adams’ half-hour concerto was divided into three sections but the whole piece moved forward seamlessly without a break.
Eventually, Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? shifted into a slower, calmer section as the strings segued into a gentler interlude, which Wang anointed with light, tinkling phrases on piano. The arrangement flowed more, with the staccato jolts of the opening replaced by longer, more melodic lines. The melodies settled more into the skin at this statelier pace, and much of the instrumentation faded away until there was only a tantalizing, ethereal commiseration between the piano and flutes.
The slowly bumping rhythm began to pick up speed again, covered by a descending wash of strings, followed by an anticipatory heartbeat of bass intercut with clarinet and other wind instruments. As Wang stepped up the intensity with an increasing urgency, the chimes of bells began to ring out from a percussionist, signaling the passage of time and framing the music with a metallic clarity.
Wang rumbled the devilish lower keys with her left hand, joining with the orchestra in a repeating bass-heavy, blues-rock groove that was crowned with increasingly demented flourishes of percussion and those fatalistic bells. She pushed down harder on the Steinway’s keys, as if she were giving CPR, while L.A. Phil’s Joanne Pearce-Martin responded across the wide stage with atonal accents on a detuned electric keyboard. Occasionally, Wang demonstrated her trademark speed and unrivaled technique as she set loose little butterfly clusters of fast, dizzying notes, but for much of the piece her piano was just another part of the orchestra as she and Dudamel avoided the temptation to make the piano too loud and flashy. When the hard-driving concerto concluded, most of the audience rose en masse for a standing ovation.”
“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.)