The mighty LA Phil, the visionary Gustavo Dudamel, and the dazzling pianist Yuja Wang – a frequent, fruitful collaborator with the orchestra – come together for an afternoon of exhilarating music making, featuring the Boston premiere of John Adams’ 2019 piano concerto Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?
Alberto Ginastera | Variaciones Concertantes
John Adams | Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? (Boston premiere)
Igor Stravinsky | The Rite of Spring
“What defines the Los Angeles Philharmonic? Is it the music and artistic director Gustavo Dudamel’s exciting performances of symphonies central to the repertory? Or is it the risks the orchestra takes on rarities and new pieces…The fact that the answer is, truly, “both” is a testament to the Philharmonic’s excellence on more fronts than almost any other ensemble.”The New York Times
“In all seriousness: What can’t Yuja Wang do? This star pianist has built her reputation on breathtaking mastery of the standard repertory, like the chamber works she played last Wednesday with the violinist Leonidas Kavakos at Carnegie Hall. Or Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto, which she’ll do with the Boston Symphony Orchestra later this week. But in between those two dates, she stopped by Carnegie’s Zankel Hall on Monday for something …”The New York Times
Notes on the program
“A nation creates music—the composer only arranges it,” Mikhail Glinka once opined. All of the pieces on this program deal to some degree with vernacular music; national music, though not of the overtly patriotic sort.
Of the three composers represented here, Alberto Ginastera is probably the one most known as a “nationalist” composer. Though that was explicit in only his earliest work, the Variaciones concertantes—a compact concerto for orchestra—are imbued with both the spirit of traditional Argentine music and some of its specific harmonic and rhythmic elements.
John Adams has always dealt artfully and enthusiastically with the full spectrum of musical traditions. His first piano concerto, Eros Piano, is a tribute to the Japanese classical composer Toru Takemitsu and jazz pianist Bill Evans; his second, Century Rolls, took “a kind of polymorphous-perverse pleasure in the whole past century of piano music, both popular and classical.” This new one is a sort of barroom Totentanz (“death dance”), in a “funk-invested American style.”
Igor Stravinsky stressed absolute abstraction in many of his public utterances on music, but he had his greatest successes—across all styles, throughout his career—with directly expressive music for the theater, much of it referencing earlier composers or folk music. Some of the thematic fragments he used in The Rite of Spring do come from traditional sources, but he also drew on his own memories of the actual seasonal impact for the astonishing power of his groundbreaking work. “The violent Russian spring seemed to begin in an hour and was like the whole earth cracking,” he said.
Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983)
The Variaciones concertantes were composed in 1953, during a difficult period for Ginastera, as political conflicts with the Perón government forced him to resign as director of the music conservatory at the National University of La Plata. He supported himself by scoring films, as he had been since 1942, and accepting commissions such as the Variaciones, which came to him from the Asociación Amigos de la Música in Buenos Aires, where Igor Markevitch conducted the premiere in June 1953.
This was a central work of the “subjective nationalism” of Ginastera’s second stylistic period, in which folkloric and traditional materials are idealized and sublimated in a personal way. One characteristic musical symbol of this is harmony derived from the open strings of the guitar, as heard in the harp under the solo cello statement of the theme at the beginning, and again before the final variation. (These pitches—E, A, D, G, B—also supply variation material and represent the main key areas of the whole set.)
Two interludes (the first for strings, the second for winds) then frame seven character variations featuring different solo instruments with the orchestra. The first is a spunky scamper for the flute (Variazione giocosa), which leads directly into an edgier romp featuring clarinet (Variazione in modo di Scherzo). The haunting elegy for the viola (Variazione drammatica) is much the longest of the group. Its modal chords seem to spill over into the next variation, a dusky duet for oboe and bassoon (Variazione canonica). The brief, brilliant variation for trumpet and trombone (Variazione ritmica) is basically a splashy fanfare for the ensuing violin whirlwind (Variazione in modo di Moto perpetuo). To close this central group of variations, the horn offers a lyrically poised take on the original theme (Variazione pastorale).
Ginastera rounds this off with a reprise of the main theme, again accompanied by the harp but this time with double bass taking up the tune. A final variation, for the full ensemble, ensues (Variazione in modo di Rondo). This is a high-voltage malambo, the competitive gaucho dance that was another prime symbol for Ginastera. The steady repeated notes represent tapping feet, with virtuosic and jazzy flourishes coming from all instrumental points.
John Adams (b. 1947)
Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?
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 a funk-invested American-style.” Adams points out that the origin of the phrase has been attributed to Martin Luther and various 18th- and 19th-century theologians.
While the concerto is in one continuous movement, its three seamlessly connected sections follow the traditional fast-slow-fast format, with the piano soloist 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 8th-note punctuation, providing an off-kilter lurch.
After a series of questioning chords in dialog between piano and orchestra, the second section emerges with suspended strings over the delicately ornamented piano solo. (Adams says that in this section he was inspired especially by Yuja Wang’s lyrical playing.)
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 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.
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
The Rite of Spring
“The idea of The Rite of Spring came to me while I was still composing Firebird,” Igor Stravinsky recalled, 45 years after the ballet’s first performance in 1913, in his book Conversations. “I had dreamed of a scene of pagan ritual in which a chosen sacrificial virgin danced herself to death.” If Stravinsky is to be believed, this dream marked the beginning of a process that culminated in the premiere of one of the 20th century’s most important musical works.
Stravinsky’s music was meant to capture the spirit of the scenario, which he had outlined with the help of painter and ethnographer Nikolai Roerich and dancer and choreographer Mikhail Fokine during the spring and summer of 1910. Roerich had filled Stravinsky’s head with tales about all sorts of rituals from ancient Russia divinations, sacrifices, dances, and so on—involving a variety of characters. The ballet that resulted revolves around the return of spring and the renewal of the earth through the sacrifice of a virgin. In his handwritten version of the story, Stravinsky described The Rite as “a musical choreographic work. It represents pagan Russia and is unified by a single idea: the mystery and the great surge of the creative power of spring….”
Stravinsky completed the score on March 29, 1913, and exactly two months later, the ballet premiered in Paris at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, where it caused the famous scandal that ushered in modern music. Nijinsky’s choreography and the wild, unchecked power of Stravinsky’s score were something wholly new. Stravinsky wrote for one of his largest orchestras ever in The Rite, and he used it with an assurance and confidence one would hardly expect from a composer just out of his twenties and with only two big successes —The Firebird and Petrushka—behind him.
But those two scores, for all of their individuality and accomplishment, did not seem like they were leading to The Rite. What Stravinsky did was totally unexpected. The stage action during the ballet’s second half, leading up to the sacrifice, was enough to capture the attention of even that raucous audience at the first performance. Finally quiet, they could hear Stravinsky’s score and watch as Maria Piltz, the dancer who played the sacrificial victim, stood motionless as the ritual unfolded around her, gradually coming to life to perform her dance, with its angular contortions and tortured motions.
Her collapse, which, according to Stravinsky, represented “the annual cycle of forces which are born, and which fall again into the bosom of nature,” marked the end of another cycle, one which only a few years earlier had culminated in the ultra-Romanticism of Gustav Mahler and the young Richard Strauss. The “bosom of nature” had yielded something new in their stead: Stravinsky and musical modernism.