Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (2018)

Commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic as part of its 2018-19 Centennial season, the new piano concerto is a twenty five-minute work in three movements, played without pause. The orchestration, in addition to solo piano, includes bass guitar and a specially detuned “honky-tonk” piano.

After the Los Angeles performances Yuja Wang and the L.A. Philharmonic will tour with the piece in Tokyo, New York, London, Edinburgh, Mexico City and elsewhere.

John Adams will conduct performances in 2020 in St Louis and Seattle with pianist Jeremy Denk  and with the young Icelandic pianist Vikingur Olafsson in Paris and Amsterdam.

Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? is John Adams’ third piano concerto, following Century Rolls (1996) and Eros Piano(1989).  He explains that the title “came from an article about Dorothy Day in a very old copy of The New Yorker.  In the same way that I first encountered the name ‘Hallelujah Junction’ and knew that I had to write a piece with that title, when I saw the phrase ‘Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?’ I thought to myself, ‘that’s a good title just waiting for a piece.’”  The phrase suggested a “Totentanz”, only not of the Lisztian manner, but more of funk-invested American-style.” Adams points out that the origin of the phrase has been attributed to Martin Luther and various 18thand 19thcentury theologians.

While the concerto is in one continuous movement, its three seamlessly connected sections follow the traditional fast-slow-fast format, with the pianist active throughout.  Piano and orchestra begin in the bass register, with a gospel-like riff (marked “Gritty, Funky”).  Even with a steady groove, the meter of 9/8 divides into an even 4/4 plus one extra eighth note punctuation, providing an off-kilter lurch.  The texture thickens and rises, and gathers momentum with a perpetual motion variation of the theme (marked “twitchy, bot-like,” with echoes of Mancini’s Peter Gunn), with the piano joined ominously by a detuned honky tonk piano. Diverging from its tonal center, the piano writing becomes wilder and more chromatic, and is shadowed by the orchestra, with blurts of brass echoing sharp accented chords.  The zigzagging chromatic lines recall another musical devil, Ligeti’s L’Escalier du diable Etude, with its infinite ascendance a la M.C. Escher.  After a series of questioning chords in dialogue between piano and orchestra, the second section emerges with suspended strings over the delicately ornamented piano solo.  Its serenity is deep but fleeting, with the restless piano part exploring a leaping melody (Adams says he was inspired especially by Yuja Wang’s lyrical playing in this section). The transition to the third section is barely noticeable, as gentle pulsing gives way to a rocking 12/8 rhythm, marked “Obsession/Swing.”  The virtuosity and playfulness here are familiar from other Adams finales, with the interplay between rollicking syncopation, chirping woodwinds, off-beat accents of brass, loping stride bass, a battery of percussion, and a brilliantly energetic piano part ranging across the entire keyboard which, after three mysterious, brief interruptions of a held octave D in the orchestra, propels the concerto to a boisterous close. Note by Sarah Cahill

 

 

First performance: March 7, 2019

Yuja Wang, pianist

Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel, conductor