Adès and Adams: Big Composers With Simultaneous Big Premieres

Adès and Adams: Big Composers With Simultaneous Big Premieres

After 250 years or so, the piano concerto has some life in it yet.

This week alone, two piano concertos by two eminent composers, Thomas Adès and John Adams, will have their premieres on the same evening. They follow close on the heels of another, by the Pulitzer Prize-winner Caroline Shaw, presented by the Seattle Symphony earlier this year.

On the East Coast, Mr. Adès will conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra in his unambiguously titled Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, featuring Kirill Gerstein. On the other side of the country, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, under Gustavo Dudamel, will play Mr. Adams’s “Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?” with Yuja Wang.

(No need to despair if you’re not in Boston or Los Angeles: Mr. Adès’s work travels to Carnegie Hall on March 20, and “Must the Devil” comes to Lincoln Center this fall, with a long list of future performances planned around the world through at least 2020.)

In their own postmodern ways, these concertos acknowledge the genre’s long and wide-ranging history, while also searching for what else it is capable of. Here are previews of both.

If this piece has a predecessor, it’s Mr. Adès’s “In Seven Days” (2008), a work that moves fluidly between concerto and tone poem. Mr. Gerstein was performing it with the Boston Symphony in 2012 when he gathered the courage to ask the composer to write something for him.

“I remember saying that I knew I had to stand in line for a while,” Mr. Gerstein said. “And Tom charmingly said, ‘Does it have to be a solo piece?’” (Mr. Gerstein later learned from Mr. Adès’s publisher that he had “skipped the line,” by a lot.)

Mr. Adès, 48, wanted to write, he recalled, “a proper piano concerto.” And in Mr. Gerstein he found a muse to explore the form’s tradition and the idea of virtuosity itself.

The two met in the mid-2000s while performing Stravinsky’s “Les Noces,” and have since become friends with the kind of mutual admiration that leads to new music: Mr. Adès arranged a Berceuse from his opera “The Exterminating Angel” for Mr. Gerstein, who gave its premiere last month in Vienna. They’ve also embarked on a two-piano recital tour that will stop at Zankel Hall in New York on March 13.

Mr. Adès’s nod to tradition begins with the title of the piece — unadorned and unpoetic. And, like nearly every concerto throughout history, it is in three movements, opening with the statement of a theme from both the piano and the orchestra.

But there is always a twist with Mr. Adès. He revels in homage and quotation — just listen to his delightful Belle Époque pastiche score for the film “Colette” — and here he finds ways to adhere to convention while at the same time breaking free with surprising melodies and dizzying demands on the pianist.

“I’ve really asked this piece what it wanted to do,” Mr. Adès said. “What it wanted to do was speak along traditional lines, the way a tree is a traditional form: It will always have a trunk. But I suppose part of me feels that the most freshness can be found in revisiting the tradition.”

While preparing for the premiere, Mr. Gerstein — who with this week’s performances is reuniting with the Boston Symphony after recording Busoni’s colossal Piano Concerto in C with the orchestra — has often checked in with Mr. Adès, sending cellphone videos and asking interpretive questions in text messages.

“I feel like I don’t have any anxiety,” Mr. Adès said. “Kirill seems to absorb it, and it speaks through him. It’s nice not to have any worry.”

“I can’t play the piano,” Mr. Adams, 72, confessed in an interview. “I have never even taken a piano lesson.”

That hasn’t stopped him from writing some of the most spellbinding contemporary music for the instrument, like “Phrygian Gates” or the joyous and sweeping “Grand Pianola Music”; or the duet “Hallelujah Junction,” which was inspired by the name of a truck stop and was a case, he has often said, of a title looking for a piece.

His new concerto has a similar origin story. While working on his oratorio “The Gospel According to the Other Mary,” he said, he came across an old New Yorker article that included a phrase begging to be a title: “Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?” Mr. Adams hoped the quote came from Chuck Berry, but found out later it was Martin Luther’s.

The words also suggested, Mr. Adams said, the Totentanz, or danse macabre. You can hear a similarity between Liszt’s “Totentanz” and “Must the Devil”: Both pieces begin with a low and lumbering piano part over the orchestra. But whereas Liszt opens with a Dies Irae melody, Mr. Adams aims for something funky and distinctly American. (The orchestration calls for a honky-tonk piano and a bass guitar.)

What follows is a concerto that more or less adheres to fast-slow-fast convention but within a sui generis, single-movement form (as opposed to three, like the Adès) — similar to the way Mr. Adams has written symphony-length works without identifying them as such, like “Harmonielehre” and “Naïve and Sentimental Music.”

“We live in a time when there are no templates,” he said. “Mozart was a genius but he didn’t have to find a new template for each piece. Each of us, when we write a new piece now, whether it’s a 22-year-old composer or someone my age, we have to decide its form.”

The piano part, though it will be played by other soloists including Jeremy Denk and Vikingur Olafsson in the future, was written specifically for Ms. Wang — a superstar who delivers blurry-handed dazzle in showy standards but nuanced readings in more quietly demanding works, like Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor.

“She’s in there a lot,” Mr. Adams said of “Must the Devil.” He recalled being impressed by a video of Ms. Wang playing Prokofiev with the conductor Claudio Abbado, but found “real depth” in a recording of Rachmaninoff’s Études-Tableaux. “I thought: There’s something there besides the flash.”

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