Los Angeles Philharmonic

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Keith Bruce

four stars

FOR their final appearance in the opening weekend residency at the 2019 Edinburgh International Festival, Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Phil brought a new work by foremost American composer John Adams and sensational Chinese pianist Yuja Wang to play it. I am not sure the Usher Hall audience thought a lot of the Adams, but it certainly took a shine to Ms Wang.

She was pretty shiny herself, in a shimmering silver dress, slashed to the hip, and astonishing gold spike heels. That she played the concert grand in the shoes at all was a wonder, far less operated also the page-turning of the tablet computer she was using for the score alongside the instrument pedals.

On first hearing, however, the Adams concerto, Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?, offers an equivocal answer to its own question. Beginning with a bluesy riff accompanied by the basses and cellos, its rhythmic sections subsequently reference Henry Mancini’s theme for Peter Gunn and, later on, recall the composer’s own dance music for Chairman Mao in the opera Nixon in China. The piece worked best in its slower central section where the orchestration was very filmic.

When it ended, the pianist reappeared to perform no fewer than three virtuosic encores, adding her own improvisation skills to different eras of popular dance music, and the packed house would cheerfully have listened to her do that all night.

The orchestra had opened the programme with Barber’s Adagio for Strings, to which Dudamel brought a gently propulsive, and not overly syrupy, approach. Nonetheless, I suspect I was not the only person in the hall for whom its association with grief immediately brought to mind the horrific killings in El Paso in the orchestra’s homeland the previous day.

The conductor’s narrative for Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No4 was also clearly an emotional one, with clipped phrasing of the woodwinds in the opening movement subsequently becoming more languid, and a deliberate emphasis on the ambiguity and uncertainty of tone throughout the piece. A less-than-precise brass entry in the opening bars stood out because it was so unusual in the ensemble cohesion of the orchestra, with the pizzicato third movement especially impressive.

His arms by his sides, Dudamel’s communication with his musicians became a matter of smiles and a nod of the head.