Choosing Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? for the title of a concerto which has no good tunes is like waving a red flag in front of a music critic. It certainly explains more about music critics than it does about John Adams. Just turned 70, still with a twinkle in his eye, Adams has written a sprawling new tour de force, nearly 30 minutes long, that masterfully turned Walt Disney Concert Hall into an acoustic planetarium of glorious sound. And since it was more a concertante than a concerto, with Yuja Wang the glittering soloist and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which commissioned it, the glamorous orchestra, it was exactly the kind of music that would have been inspired by a whim – in this case, according to Sarah Cahill's program notes, the composer's attraction to a "a good title waiting for a piece". Adams further commented that the "the phrase suggested a Totentanz only not of the Lisztian manner, but more a funk-invested American style."

John Adams © Vern Evans
John Adams
© Vern Evans

Mostly, however, and even though the first of the concerto's three parts is marked "Gritty, funky, but in strict tempo," it was a search for a cadenza which Adams frustrated relentlessly until, with a Gershwin-esque rush suffused in big washes of sound, and braying brass, he allowed it to end with…a whimper.

The sprawl of incidents that happened along the way started with Wang pounding away vaguely à la Tchaikovsky against an extraordinary backing of two solo cellos and four double-basses, soon joined by a trio of bassoons including a contra. Adams's audiophile sonic palette included trumpets honking, clarinets chortling, a gorgeous viola moment introducing one of Wang's big solos, more odd bass rumblings, a synthesized honky-tonk upright – all of it always building towards a cadenza that never came. 

After the composer was welcomed affectionately by the audience, Wang returned to play Adams' lovely China Gates. He wrote it more than 40 years ago. She made it sound as fresh as rain.

After intermission, Gustavo Dudamel asked the audience to acknowledge Frank Gehry who has been celebrating his 90th birthday in the many music rooms and culture palaces and buildings he has created around the world. Dudamel singled out the soon to be opened Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA) Center in Inglewood ("for our children"), 15 miles southwest of Disney Hall, and the Frank Gehry Fund for Creativity. "Pancho, we love you," he concluded while the audience responded warmly as if he were one of their own. A genuine hometown hero.

To express their love, Dudamel and the Phil played Mahler's First as affectionately as they can, which means smiling and relaxed, seductive first-chair playing throughout of seductive beauty, and all of them, even Dudamel himself, occasionally seeming to be lost in quiet listening. There was lovely string playing, with immaculately balanced inner light, and powerful fortissimos which rang out in the hall.

The second movement's country dances featured Dudamel's familiar tempo changes and lilts. The third movement was haunted by a klezmer-like double-bass solo which had the entire orchestra swaying along; the effect was so deeply meditative that when the radiant G major section sprinkled its inevitably somnolent fairy dust over the audience, the great architect himself was among those many in the audience who were thrilled to awaken suddenly to the sunrise majesty of the final movement exploding into being.

***11