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Pianist Yuja Wang dazzles in pounding new John Adams concerto

Pianist Yuja Wang. (Ian Douglas/Los Angeles Philharmonic)

LOS ANGELES — There were only two moments of true, reflective stillness during last night’s Los Angeles Philharmonic program at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. One occurred when pianist Yuja Wang held the audience spellbound with her diaphanous reading of John Adams’s “China Gates” for solo piano, distilling every ounce of neoimpressionist perfume from this early-career work. She played this piece as an encore after the world premiere of Adams’s latest, an L.A.-Philharmonic-commissioned score, the piano concerto “Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?”, which provided the evening’s other instance of rapt repose.

During the concerto’s slow middle section — this is a single-movement work — the piano line treaded a cool, quiet path through a landscape of heavy-breathing basses and woodwinds murmuring the kinds of sinister melodies Bernard Herrmann might have used to underscore a Hitchcock heroine wandering into mortal peril. Wang’s phrasing here was clear, chaste and feather-light, proving yet again that she is as impressive for her poetic sensibilities as for her pyrotechnic dazzle.

Not that “Must the Devil” lacked YouTube-worthy moments of keyboard bravura in its explosive outer movements. Wang (for whom Adams wrote the piece) dashed off difficult writing, still practically wet on the page, with the sort of brash confidence and technical finish you’d expect to hear after years of playing this music. (And she deserves an honorary degree from MIT for having to count all the punishing, irregular meters that filled Adams’s score.) L.A. Philharmonic music director Gustavo Dudamel matched her in sheer verve. Much of the orchestral writing answers, amplifies and jams on what the piano line initiates, and Dudamel made sure that musical conversation unfolded with machine-chiseled accuracy.

This is a city piece: all steel girders and glass monoliths, pounding factory rhythms and fatally seductive temptations around every corner — very much the modern-day equivalent of a Lisztian “Totentanz” that Adams has said he was aiming to create. The opening section (titled “Gritty, funky, but in strict tempo”) deconstructs a “Peter Gunn”-like vamp into what might be described as a Prokofiev-style piano concerto, retrofitted with minimalist rhythmic cells, bebop bursts of brass and ironic commentary from a sampled, out-of-tune, honky-tonk piano. The final section (“Obsession/Swing”) returns to the energy of the first, its driving syncopations and riot of orchestral color building to a satisfying finish.

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Given the high-octane thrills of the Adams piece, one might have expected Dudamel to seek out the nature-loving repose that ripples through Mahler’s First Symphony on the second half of the program. But Dudamel was all exuberance and boisterous energy. The first movement was clear-eyed and mystery-free — even forensic — with wind solos very much to the fore. And throughout the work, the conductor tended to take a more-is-more approach that dug heavily into earthy dance rhythms, lending the waltz material a “Der Rosenkavalier”-like gloss, and giving the klezmer music a playful poke in the ribs — all on his way to a finale that made a tremendous noise. Not the subtlest Mahler, but thrilling, with the orchestra (a few horn fluffs aside) playing at the top of its form.

The program repeats Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.

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