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Program Notes: Adams Conducts Adams

Friday, March 27, 2020, at 10:30AM Saturday, March 28, 2020, at 8:00PM

John Adams, conductor

BEETHOVEN Fidelio Overture, op. 72 JOHN ADAMS Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? SIBELIUS Symphony No. 1 in E minor, op. 39


John Adams’ latest major composition, Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?, has won international success in the span of just a little over a year. Since its premiere last March by Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, it has traveled across the U.S., Asia, and Europe.There’s always a special excitement when a new work’s own composer takes over the baton to conduct, but in St. Louis the soloist role is also changing hands, so to speak.

Adams originally wrote the concerto with the personality of the Chinese pianist Yuja Wang in mind. Now Jeremy Denk, another keyboard artist with a distinctive and powerful personality—and a longtime collaborative partner with Adams—takes a turn to leave his stamp on the score.

As we will experience in Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?, Adams’ musical imagination is saturated with the idioms of Americana, from gospel to honky-tonk and swing, but he blends these with aspects of the classical European tradition that intrigue him most. So it makes sense that Adams frames the concerto with his interpretations of pieces by two composers who loom especially large in his own thinking about musical creativity.

Composer Ludwig Van Beethoven
Ludwig Van Beethoven


Born December 16, 1770, Bonn, Germany

Died March 26, 1827, Vienna, Austria

Fidelio Overture

Getting the Music Right: Overture to Fidelio

Doesn’t it seem strange that Beethoven’s output includes only one opera? This is a composer who has inspired countless listeners through the dramatic power of his musical language. Beethoven became a master at using whatever medium he worked with—the piano, the string quartet, or the full symphony orchestra—to convey a sense of life-or-death struggle. He even took the unprecedented step of expanding the symphony to include the human voice in his last symphony, the Ninth, which stages an epic drama of affirmation in its final movement.

In fact, Beethoven did mull over several opera projects—including a failed attempt to set a libretto by the man who wrote the text of The Magic Flute, as well as some brief sketches for an opera based on Macbeth. He also wrote incidental music for the stage. But Fidelio is the sole opera Beethoven managed to complete. He latched onto the idealism and moral earnestness of its story of love powerful enough to conquer tyranny and political repression.

Inspired by the era of the French Revolution, Fidelio recounts the heroic efforts of its protagonist, Leonore, to rescue her husband from political imprisonment and assassination. To work her way into the system, Leonore disguises herself as a man (using the assumed identity, “Fidelio”) and courageously uncovers the prison governor’s atrocities.

Fidelio gave Beethoven a huge amount of trouble—“my child of sorrow,” as he once lamented—and had to be revised multiple times following the disappointing premiere in November 1805. The intensely collaborative nature of opera and the need to adjust to the practical constraints of theater performance made the genre especially difficult for a composer so averse to compromise.

No fewer than four different overtures are associated with Fidelio—a fact that mirrors the frustrations Beethoven faced in shaping the work and getting pacing and proportions right. Three of these are named after the heroine Leonore, since that was initially Beethoven’s preferred title, and are related to the early productions of 1805-06. The Leonore Overture No. 3 is the best known of these since it has become a concert hall favorite.

But Beethoven changed his approach significantly when he decided to write an entirely fresh overture for his final revision of 1814—a full decade after he first started composing the opera. At that point, the title Fidelio—which, incidentally, had also been used at the beginning of the show’s history—was settled on.

The Leonore Overtures resemble miniature symphonies: using material from the opera itself, they essentially summarize the drama even before the curtain has risen. Richard Wagner remarked of No. 3 in particular: “This work is no longer an overture but the mightiest of dramas in itself.” Which, Beethoven came to realize, was precisely the problem, since the comic tone with which this ultimately serious opera begins seems jarringly anti-climactic in the wake of that massive overture.

Listening Guide

The leaner, tighter Fidelio Overture scales back to more conventional proportions. At the same time, Beethoven starts with an exciting call-to-attention that is fittingly dramatic. Its rhythmic punch—long-short-long—proves, in characteristic Beethoven fashion, to be tremendously fertile, giving momentum to other moments in the overture and propelling its triumphant conclusion.

Along the way, Beethoven introduces touching lyrical ideas that foreshadow the depth of the love between Leonore and her husband. Yet again, Beethoven’s own overture upstaged the opening scene: this time, since the audience loved it so much, they called for the composer to acknowledge their applause.

First performance: May 23, 1814, at the Kärntnertor Theater in Vienna, Austria, Michael Umlauf conducting

First SLSO performance: December 3, 1908, Max Zach conducting

Most recent SLSO performance: March 20, 2016, Jun Märkl conducting

Scoring: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani, strings

Performance time: Approximately 6 minutes

Composer John Adams
John Adams


Born February 15, 1947,

Worcester, Massachusetts

Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?

A Devilishly Well-Made Piano Concerto

The concerto format figures prominently in Adams’ creative work. His catalogue includes a concerto for his own instrument (clarinet), a saxophone concerto, three violin concertos, and three piano concertos (plus a concert work for two pianos and orchestra).

At the same time, every time this composer undertakes writing a concerto, he re-imagines its underlying premise to create a one-of-a-kind composition that inhabits its own world. Scheherazade.2 (2014), for example, transforms the concerto idea into an epic “dramatic symphony” (Adams’ term) that projects the legendary figure from Arabian Nights into our own time. Grand Pianola Music is an early work (1982) for two pianos, orchestra (without strings), and three amplified female voices that caused a scandal at its premiere. Inspired by a dream of two Steinway pianos racing down the highway, it surreally recalls riffs from Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto and other “grand piano” icons.

Even when Adams resorts to the familiar three-part concerto design, he individualizes the form in a way specifically tailored to the composition, as well as to the character of the performer he has in mind. Century Rolls, his previous piano concerto (1996), plays with the tension between such individuality and the modern era of mechanical reproduction: Adams became fascinated by the impersonal repeatability of old piano roll music while at the same time writing for the special warmth and touch of pianist Emanuel Ax.

Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? similarly follows a three-part format. Adams remarks that the long-standing concerto pattern of two fast movements surrounding a slow movement has stood the test of time because it is an “archetype.” But the three movements are played without pause, creating a concerto that unfolds as a single structure. This is an architectural idea that Romantic composers like Franz Liszt explored, but Adams finds his inspiration for it in Sibelius, whose single-movement Seventh Symphony served as a model for his Doctor Atomic Symphony.

Liszt does come into play, though, if you focus on the concerto’s title. As a celebrity pianist early in his career, Liszt triggered sensational rumors—much as Niccolò Paganini did for the violin—of diabolical powers. Adams’ piece recalls these Romantic associations of fiendish, feverish instrumental virtuosity.

But that represents merely one layer of Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? “That’s a good title waiting for a piece!” Adams recalls remarking to himself when he ran across that phrase while leafing through an old edition of The New Yorker and reading an article about Dorothy Day—the radical Catholic workers’ rights activist whose writings form part of the libretto of one of his stage masterpieces, The Gospel According to the Other Mary (2012).

Adams discovered that Martin Luther is among those attributed with coining the phrase (to which J.R.R. Tolkien’s riposte was: “but the devil does not have all the good stories”). The concerto’s title elicited associations for Adams with the trope of the Totentanz (“Dance of Death”)—which is in fact the title of a particularly macabre work Liszt wrote for piano and orchestra that was inspired by a medieval mural depicting the triumph of death. Yet what makes this concerto so unique is how its Old World connections are intersected by American idioms and lore. Our own legends involving deals with the devil include the tale of blues master Robert Johnson at the crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

It is worth noting that Adams had recently completed his grand opera Girls of the Golden West (2017) when he started work on the piano concerto. For the opera, which explores the dark, violent, racist side of the gold rush period in California, Adams created a sound world that deconstructs Americana with spiky rhythmic energy and enigmatic harmonies.

Listening Guide

Adams early on forged a musical language—a language that continues to evolve with each new work—that absorbs a whole spectrum of homegrown American styles. Duke Ellington has long been an abiding inspiration (above all in the way Adams writes for orchestra), and you can even hear the rollicking excitement of Jerry Lee Lewis–style early rock-and-roll piano amid the textures of his first opera, Nixon in China.

Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? embodies a kind of microcosm of this process. From the very start, Adams alludes to what he describes as “gospel piano, with ten fingers going all the time” in relentless chords. The opening theme archly quotes Henry Mancini’s hit title song to Peter Gunn, a private eye TV series from the late 1950s. To add to his palette, the score calls for bass guitar and a “detuned (‘honky-tonk’) piano sound” along with the orchestra and solo piano. Various styles of jazz are evoked and seamlessly blended with the cadenzas of the classical virtuoso. Echoes of the player piano etudes of the ex-pat, avant-garde Conlon Nancarrow that push the performer to super-human extremes—still another diabolical aspect of the work—emerge in the rhythmic complexity of Adams’ writing, which squeezes “extra” beats between already crowded bar lines.

Adams gives the first movement this overall instruction: “Gritty, funky, but in Strict Tempo; Twitchy, Bot-like”—a dualism of messiness and strict discipline that becomes an exciting source of tension. The music gives way to a section (“much slower; gently, relaxed”) that operates like a kind of Rorschach test for the listener: is this an oasis of calm or a moment of anxious, troubled questioning? The soloist attempts to weave together, from poignant fragments, mere wisps, a longer melody—Adams’ ironic reference to the tunes of the title, which turn out to be deliberately elusive.

Pay especially close attention to how Adams leads the music from this slow section to the final one, marked “Più Mosso” (more quickly): “Obsession/Swing.” You can tell a lot about any artist from the way they handle such transitions—here, from mysterious sonorities to music that, we become aware, is fast and decisive—without crudely shifting gears. This is among the most wondrous moments in the whole piece.

In the final section, the piano leads the way, laying down an impetuous rhythmic track associated with another traditional dance of death, the Italian tarantella (where popular legend linked this frenetic dance to consequences of being bitten by a tarantula). Fierce chord-stabs and menacing accents briefly recall the “countdown” music from Adams’ opera Doctor Atomic. Struck chimes bring the concerto to a sudden halt, resounding with the final word.

First performance: March 7, 2019, by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel conducting with Yuja Wang as soloist

First SLSO performance: This weekend’s concerts

Scoring: solo piano, piccolo, 2 flutes (second doubling piccolo 2), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets (second doubling basset horn), bass clarinet, 3 bassoons (third doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones (second doubling bass trombone), almglocken, bass drum, bass drum with pedal, chimes, snare drum, detuned upright piano, strings

Performance time: Approximately 27 minutes


Composer Jean Sibelius
Jean Sibelius


Born December 8, 1865, Hämeenlinna, Finland

Died September 20, 1957, Ainola, Finland

Symphony No. 1 in E minor, op. 39

Sibelius’ Astonishing Symphonic Debut

Almost a full century after Beethoven introduced his Symphony No. 1, Jean Sibelius was ready to unveil his first officially numbered symphony: on April 26, 1899, the composer conducted his First Symphony in Helsinki. Sibelius was an obsessive reviser, and he immediately set about refining the score to create the version that has become widely known. This version was premiered on July 1, 1900. The First is thus positioned, chronologically, as a work on the cusp of a new century of radical musical transformations.

John Adams speaks of a personal, even “totemic” relationship with Sibelius’ First: “It was one of the first pieces of classical music I knew.” He adds that “it already has all the earmarks of mature Sibelius.” The First sets the stage for the Finnish composer’s remarkable series of seven symphonies—works that have made a profound mark on Adams’ own thinking about writing on the large scale for orchestra. (For those who would like to explore this topic further: Adams’ Harmonielehre and the Doctor Atomic Symphony incorporate inspirations from Sibelius’ Fourth and Seventh Symphonies, respectively).

Sibelius paved the way toward his First with a series of works inspired by the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic that includes an ancient creation story together with far-ranging adventure tales. In the 1890s, he emerged as one of the leading lights of the Karelianists, a circle of artists who promoted the indigenous cultural heritage of Finland, then under Russian rule. Sibelius traveled around the Karelia region—a place of breathtaking, diverse natural beauty—to study the folk music and poetry traditions that lingered on and that were the main source for the published version of the Kalevala.

Like Beethoven, Sibelius had a natural affinity for telling stories with his music and yet completed only one very brief opera. He channeled his early operatic ambitions into such scores as Kullervo (1892), an ambitious choral-orchestral work, and the Lemminkäinen Suite—a symphony in all but name that Sibelius completed in the years before embarking on his First Symphony. These works, which are rooted in the pre-Christian lore of the Kalevala, already reveal a powerfully original imagination.

The reputation of these works made audiences expect another Kalevala-infused subtext when Sibelius presented his First Symphony. In fact, the composer’s original concept did involve separate programmatic sources for each of the four movements. But Sibelius set those aside in favor of a self-contained work that paid homage to the traditional musical structure—albeit in an extraordinarily original way. The unique qualities of Sibelius here extend to his treatment of symphonic architecture and the way he exploits the orchestra to create arresting soundscapes.

Sibelius had absorbed the mainstream German tradition—he had spent some time studying on the continent, during a period when he still hoped to have a career as a violinist—along with other strands of the late Romantic musical language in the air at the time. He was known in particular to admire Tchaikovsky’s last symphony, the Pathétique, however ironic this influence may seem, given Sibelius’ association with the Finnish drive for independence from czarist oppression.

Listening Guide

This is one of the most imaginative beginnings of a symphony in the repertoire. For John Adams, who has known this music for most of his life, the sound world Sibelius introduces with gently rumbling timpani and a solo clarinet melody has lost none of its spellbinding power. “No one had thought of or imagined an opening of a symphony like that before Sibelius,” he says. “The timpani creates this sense of space, which is what orchestration is all about.”

You might also think of this introductory gesture from the timpani and clarinet as creating a sense of foreground and background. The notion of a landscape unfolding continues after the main theme is stated in full glory and Sibelius makes an excursion to a calm oasis filled with birdsong. But the movement draws to a dark, mysterious close.

The slow movement makes much of the contrast between its peaceful opening tune and stormy developments. In the Scherzo, Sibelius stresses a seven-note pattern thundered by the timpani—a protagonist of sorts in this work—and sets up another idyllic scene in the center as a foil to its raucous energy.

The last movement (titled “Like a Fantasy”) reprises the opening clarinet tune in full orchestral guise. The impassioned melody and tempestuous outburst that later emerge bring to mind for many listeners the style of Tchaikovsky. But listen for that sense of space—of chasms opening up, and terrifying heights—which is unique to Sibelius. The music builds to a climax that turns out to be catastrophic. It prepares the way for a grim end that chillingly echoes the abrupt, fateful conclusion of the first movement.

First performance: July 1, 1900, in Berlin by the Helsinki Philharmonic, Robert Kajanus conducting (revised version)

First SLSO performance: December 17, 1909, Max Zach conducting

Most recent SLSO performance: October 25, 2014, John Storgårds conducting

Scoring: 2 flutes (both doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, harp, strings

Performance time: Approximately 38 minutes


Thomas May is a freelance writer, critic, educator, and translator whose work has been published internationally. He contributes to the programs of the Lucerne Festival as well as to The New York Times and Musical America.


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