Friday, April 17, 2020

The Devil and John Adams

courtesy of the Universal Music Group

Today is the release date for the latest album of the music of John Adams, the world premiere recording of his most recent creation for piano, “Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?” This piece was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic as part of the celebration of its 2018–19 Centennial Season. It is a 25-minute piano concerto in three movements performed without interruption. Yuja Wang played the piano with the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. The album is available on; but, as seems to have become the “new normal,” Amazon is limiting its physical shipments. As a result, the only product page is the one for digital download.

To my great regret, that download does not include an accompanying booklet. Fortunately, this piece has its own Web page on John Adams’ Web site. That page includes a highly informative essay by Sarah Cahill that will serve as an invaluable supplement for anyone giving this recording serious listening. Many readers may recall that I, hopefully among others, regard Cahill is one of the best authorities on the piano music of John Adams. I therefore took more than a little comfort in Wang providing the album with an “encore track” performance of “China Gates,” a brief solo piano piece that Adams composed for Cahill when she was seventeen years old. (Adams was about 30 at the time.)

Cahill’s essay quotes Adams saying that the title “came from an article about Dorothy Day in a very old copy of The New Yorker.” Be that as it may, Day was probably putting her own twist on Martin Luther. I first encountered Luther’s version in Ernest Newman’s English translation of Albert Schweitzer’s biography, J. S. Bach. It shows up in the third chapter of the book, which discusses how many chorale melodies borrowed from secular songs, because Luther believed that “the devil does not need all the good tunes for himself.” A post (March 10, 2014) on the Beggars All: Reformation & Apologetics blog cites a variation in Richard Friedenthal’s 1967 biography of Luther.

The concerto itself consists of three uninterrupted movements in fast-slow-fast structure. Those of my generation will react immediately to the opening gesture’s nod to the theme music for an old detective television series called Peter Gunn, the first composition by Henry Mancini to receive wide public attention. Adams immediately throws a monkey wrench into Mancini’s driving rhythm by turning the source’s driving 4/4 beat into 9/8. From that point on the music turns into a wild roller coaster ride with a diverse mash-up of jazz and pop piano idioms and rudely punctuated intrusions from the orchestral ensemble.

As might be expected, Wang charges through all of the technical challenges Adams lays along her path. Nevertheless, he gives her a break during the slow movement, allowing those of us who have been following her career for many years to enjoy the interlude of her lyricism. Things then get back up to speed in the final movement, given the title “Obsession/Swing.” The whole thing makes for a fun trip, but it would not surprise me if those that have followed Adams’ progress closely would find much of the scenery a bit too familiar.

From that point of view, I have to confess that I was more taken with Wang’s encore than I was with the concerto. Far be it from me to try to second-guess her motives. However, it seemed to me that she had colored her interpretation of “China Gates” with more than a few hints of nostalgia. (All of Wang’s piano training took place in Beijing until she came to the United States to enter the Curtis Institute of Music.) Through that encore, quiet brevity prevailed over bombast.

No comments: