This music is certainly not the John Adams of old.
If you are looking for the pretty, agreeable harmonies of his most iconic works like Short Ride in a Fast Machine or his masterpiece Hallelujah Junction, you won’t find that here.
Rather, this is the work of an older, more mature composer who no longer cares about the weight of public opinion on his shoulder. This music is more in the lineage of his Chamber Symphony, minus the cartoon references.
We certainly hear the elements of typical John Adams. Repetitive structures, imaginative orchestration, and rhythms with clearly delineated beats. His penchant for these populist-pleasing idioms stems from his own “omnivorish” taste in music; Adams has stated his own influences range from classical music to Jimi Hendrix.
But what makes this piece so different from much of his previous work is his mastery of a larger harmonic palette.
And boy does Yuja Wang play the hell out of this piece. This is piano music at its most difficult – the first movement would be technically troubling for any pianist. For Yuja, it does not sound effortless per se, but rather, like a dedicated & concerted effort. She crafts every phrase diligently to meet the intense demands of the composer.
The second movement is delightful in its contrast to the first. Yes, all second movements are slow, but this particular one is special. Its approach is so different from the first movement; the sustained strings represent a striking contrast to the solo piano, which is texturally disjunct in comparison.
The second movement is almost too long; however, just as you start to tune out, Adams brings you back in with an unexpected, tense, and pulsing finale. Some of his most exposed, simple harmonic writing introduces the third movement.
And while continuing to listen to the third movement, you quickly realize it is the concerto’s crowning achievement. The section’s bombastic swings sound like it could have been imagined by Gershwin, and that this movement would be his third rhapsody. Unlike Gershwin, Adams does not end his own jazz-infused rhapsody on a bang, but rather, on a dramatic percussive bell fading into silence.
I like how unapologetic Adams is about his constant use of the piano in every movement. Many composers in a concerto will give their soloists a break, or a long-winded introduction devoid of the star musician.
Not John Adams – the piano is playing in nearly every measure of this 25 minute work. My respect for Yuja Wang’s musical stamina is out of this world – this work is a physical, intense workout just to listen to!
The final piece on this particular album, China Gates, is one of Adams’ earliest mature works. A 5-minute piano piece that explores post-Glass minimalism, the music has seen numerous recordings.
This particular one by Yuja Wang is neither groundbreaking nor bad. It’s actually one of the fastest recordings I have heard of the piece. While the piece is not particularly hard, it is tricky in that the hands are playing so close to each other on the piano and will often overlap. Take it from someone who has attempted the piece.
John Adams’ inspiration for the concerto is interesting. He was reading an old copy of The New Yorker and saw an article about political radical Dorothy Day.
The phrase “Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes” was printed in the article, and Adams thought to himself “that’s a good title just waiting for a piece.” Sounds about right.
EDITOR’S NOTE: John Adams himself says the concerto is in one movement. The recording delineates it as three movements, so we are going by the recording for this album review.