Yuja Wang, LA Phil and Gustavo Dudamel launch their Barbican residency with a gorgeous performance of the new Adams concerto

The Los Angeles Philharmonic and their Music Director Gustavo Dudamel launched their three-day Barbican residency with style on Monday, uncovering a musical treasure chest, containg three masterpieces from the 20th and 21st centuries.

The evening began with Alberto Ginastera’s Variaciones concertantes (1953), a perfect vehicle for showcasing the fabulous section principals of the LA Phil. Each of the variations focuses on a different combination of soloists, thus making the piece a rewarding and challenging thing to perform. For the listener, Ginastera’s piece is a joyous encounter, one far too rarely performed.

LA Phil and Dudamel embraced the music wholeheardedly, with a luminous combination of solo performances and ensemble playing. A focused concert opener setting the evening well in motion.

Over the past thirty years or so, John Adams has written a dazzling series of concertos, with many of them well consolidated in the repertoire. His latest take on the medium, Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? (2018-19), is a piano concerto commissioned by the LA Phil, and written for Yuja Wang.

Premiered at the Walt Disney Concert Hall last March, the new piano concerto is Adams’ third, following Takemitsu-inspired Eros Piano (1989) and Nancarrowesque Century Rolls (1996). As suggested by its spot-on title, Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? assumes the form of a danse macabre, though in an aptly funky manner.

The concerto opens with a dark groove from the bassoons, double bassoons and string basses, engaged in a dark-hued dance with the soloist. Rooted in marvelloysly quirky 9/8 metre, the music grows into a staggering dance for piano and orchestra.

Woven together with the solo piano, cowbells lend their fabulous sonorities to the orchestral fabric, a case in point of Adams’ ever imaginative instrumentation, marvellously performed by LA Phil with Dudamel.

The solo part is a celebration of rhythm and colour, to a spellbinding effect. Played with perfection and inextinguishable energy by Yuja Wang, the opening section was a captivating experience.

Though written in one continuous movement, the concerto is based on the traditional fast-slow-fast scheme, with sections flowing organically from one to another.

The haunting, slow middle section contains some of Adams’ most wonderful writing for keyboard, and for orchestra, for that matter, celebrating Yuja Wang’s artistry with impeccable craft and beauty. The music wanders into most captivating soundscapes, with intriguing harmonies and textures. Here, one gradually looses the sense of time and space, to a stunning effect. With perfect teamwork by the soloist, the orchestra and the conductor, hearing this outstanding music was indeed a privilege.

Almost unnoticed, the music transforms seamlessly into a faster closing section, joining the soloist and the orchestra in another contrapuntal feast, a swing finale clad in stunning orchestral guise. There is an obsessive drive in the music, cooled only in the very last pages. The orchestra tries to bring the music to a halt twice, with a held string chord, only to be beaten by the soloist. On the third time, the orchestra has the final say, and Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? is brought to its formidable close.

A gorgeous performance by all accouts, the Adams concerto was a ravishing experience. The overjoyed Barbican audience was treated with three encores by Wang, a brilliant selection including Michael Tilson Thomas’ You Come Here Often? written for her a couple of years ago, followed by Nikolai Kapustin’s Toccatina and Liszt’s arrangement of Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade.

After the intermission, the orchestra and Dudamel plunged into Igor Stravinsky’s scenes from pagan Russia, Le Sacre du printemps (1911-13). A perfect modernist score, Sacre is one of those pieces that never seize to thrill and inspire. Be it the propulsive rhythms, outlandish harmonies, stupendous orchestration, or the sheer energy, hearing the Stravinsky masterpiece is always something very special.

With Dudamel and the LA Phil, the primordial and modern aspects of Sacre were brought together in most compelling way, resulting in an exciting performance, with raw energy, finesse and invention.

Stravinsky’s wealth of rhythmic invention was brought to life with admirable virtuosity by the orchestra, magnificently paced by Dudamel. I don’t think I’ve ever heard Dance of the Earth erupt with such a burst as it did yesterday. In simila vein, the Sacrificial Dance was stupendously worked out by the orchestra and Dudamel, combining fearsome sonic fury with utmost precision and detailed articulation.

In contrast to the wildest orchestral tumult, the haunting noctural soundscape of the opening of Part II was brought to life with outstanding sonorities bearing an aura of time standing still. A fascinating performance in every way, this was a Sacre to cherish.

As a trickster encore, Dudamel and the orchestra closed the evening with a joyously upbeat performance of John Philipp Sousa’s Liberty Bell March (1893). A happy closure for a happy evening. Luckily there’s more to come over the next couple of days.

Los Angeles Philharmonic

Gustavo Dudamel, conductor

Yuja Wang, piano

Alberto Ginastera: Variaciones concertantes (1953)

John Adams: Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? (2018-19) London premiere

Igor Stravinsky: Le Sacre du printemps (1911-13/1947)


Barbican Centre (LA Phil 2019 Residency)

Monday 18 November 2019, 7.30 pm

© Jari Kallio

Photos © Mark Allan / Barbican


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