Yuja Wang has often swept through town like a whirlwind, dazzling local audiences with her incandescent playing at various memorable performances over the past decade. But the stylish Chinese pianist has rarely taken part in the world premiere of a major new work, as she did Thursday, March 7, in a performance of a new piano concerto by John Adams with conductor Gustavo Dudamel and L.A. Philharmonic at Disney Hall.
The near-capacity audience leaned forward in palpable anticipation as Dudamel led Wang onstage to sit in with a large version of the orchestra to start Thursday night’s program. A newly graying Dudamel looked dashing in a black suit with a white shirt, while Wang — a fashion icon whose daring attire has sometimes overshadowed her music, at least in the eyes of some conservative critics — looked resplendent in a short, shiny emerald-green dress that was finished off with dangerous gold pumps with 5-inch heels.
Wasting little time, Dudamel nodded to Wang, who plunged right into the dark, probing, foreboding chords that start Adams’ piano concerto, which is cheekily titled Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? The orchestra fell in behind her just moments later, with curt, quick accents from the string section. 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.
Wang returned to the stage for a quick encore on solo piano, performing Adams’ 1977 idyll China Gates. Once again, the pianist resisted the urge to be showy as she spun through the airy piece with a muted, gentle touch. Her hands fluttered around the piano’s highest keys, interspersed with occasional, spacious low notes for balance. Wang’s delicate weaving of Adams’ melodies evoked light rain, and the pretty notes descended across the floor of the stage with the quiet stealth of new snowfall. As febrile and intense as Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? was, Wang’s interpretation of China Gates was contrastingly sweet and subtle, drawing more rapturous applause as the pianist and composer Adams were called back for several bows by the excited crowd.
After intermission, Dudamel picked up the microphone, which made a sudden piercing noise. “I hope the Mahler sounds as loud as this,” the conductor joked about the second and final work on the program, Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony. Pointing out Disney Hall architect Frank Gehry in the audience, Dudamel said dryly, “So I think we know who is Frank. He has given us some things — like this beautiful place.”
Then it was back to business as Dudamel guided the L.A. Phil into the slow, austere keening of high-pitched wind instruments during the opening of Mahler’s symphony. The clarinet made a cute, kittenlike meow query that was repeated and answered back as a charming call-and-response theme by some of the other instruments. The dreamy, pastoral sheer joy of the opening movement gave way to a tranquil, almost poignantly sad passage before the hourlong piece started to wake up again with a playfulness that evoked spring.
The mood turned ebullient and the sound lush and effusive as the mighty pomp of L.A.’s brass section became bigger, deeper and richer. Sometimes, Dudamel — who impressively conducted from memory with no score — crouched low to the ground to encourage the quietest stitching of strings to link passages together. Timpanist Joseph Pereira masterfully tolled his skins with a somber yet swaying pulse as the horns washed over everything mournfully. An exotic, slowly unwinding, serpentine melody began to build and repeat as Dudamel grinned widely in sheer delight as he summoned forth the full power of the orchestra for an intense buildup.
By the very end, the entire section of about eight French-horn musicians were standing on their chairs for maximum volume and impact during Mahler’s final triumphant explosion of radiant brass, trumpets, trombones and other horns. It was a smashing conclusion to an evening that encompassed both jazzy new experimentation and deeply satisfying traditional beauty, drawing another standing ovation.