It may have taken eight months to make it across the country but John Adams’ new (ish) piano concerto Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? finally made it to New York last night as part of the Lincoln Center’s Great Performers series. With its original soloist – a magnetic and impressively funky Yuja Wang – plus the Los Angeles Philharmonic under music and artistic director Gustavo Dudamel, this was a chance for the East Coast to enjoy a slice of what the West Coast gets to hear on a weekly basis.

Yuja Wang and the LA Phil. Photo © Richard Termine

Devil is actually Adams’ third piano concerto, following on from the Takemitsu-inspired Eros Piano (1989) and then Century Rolls (1997), which takes its cue from Bill Evans. The work, says Adams, is a sort of barroom Totentanz written in a “funk-invested American style.” In fact, the title inspired the work rather than the other way around. “I thought to myself, ‘that’s a good title just waiting for a piece,’ he says.” In one continuous movement, it’s nevertheless broken up into a traditional fast-slow-fast structure with a truly virtuosic solo part and a sizable orchestra treated with considerable delicacy.

Wang launched into proceedings with a vengeance, grabbing the piano’s percussive and bluesy opening riff by the scruff of its neck while an array of double basses growled and snapped beneath her wings. The first section is labelled “Gritty, funky, but in Strict tempo; Twitchy, Bot-like” and Wang caught the mood perfectly, her slinky, gold dress sparkling in flashing counterpoint to the fidgety writing, much of which is in a wrong-footed 9/8. Jazzy downward scales fly by as the music flirts with an array of gestural references from the great piano songbook, while tuned cowbells and pithy brass are among the effects punctuating the solo lines.

Yuja Wang and the LA Phil. Photo © Richard Termine

A Stravinskian discord tips the music into its slow section, an extended rumination where Wang’s gossamer fingerings floated above dawdling, extruded string chords. A varying downward phrase on the keyboard vies for attention with its opposite number in a gentle, hypnotic meditation, the whole conjuring an atmosphere of a hot summer night. Adams even manages a subtly disguised echo of the Dies Irae, presumably a nod to Liszt’s famous Totentanz.

The finale is labelled “Obsession / Swing” and drags the piano through a range of funk-inspired possibilities before hitting a lively groove that’s picked up by stuttering strings, flickering woodwind, syncopated brass and tubular bells. As the music slips into a tottering minimalist groove it begins to feel like classic Adams, which of course is a jolly good thing. Given that overall the work feels more metrically distinctive than melodic, perhaps it should be rechristened “Must the Devil Have All the Good Rhythms,” but when the music and the music-making is this good that’s a quibble.

Yuja Wang and the LA Phil. Photo © Richard Termine

Rising to substantial applause, Wang concluded by treating the audience to a generous five encores, kicking off with Leticia Gómez-Tagle’s arrangement of Márquez’s rumba-inflected Danzón No 2 and following it with Art Tatum’s jazzy take on Tea for Two, Rubinstein’s arrangement of the Danse Russe from Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka, Cziffra’s finger-flexing version of Flight of the Bumblebee, and winding up with a radiant reading of the Liszt/Schubert Gretchen am Spinnrade.

The concert opened with Ginastera’s Variaciones Concertantes, and what a cracking piece it is! A ‘concerto for orchestra’ by any other name, it’s a great workout and Dudamel didn’t push it, allowing the music to unfold at a natural pace while the Argentinian composer’s engaging mix of instrumental colours enchanted the ear. Opening with a rich, romantic theme on cello, a melody with just a hint of mystery, and underpinned by arpeggios on solo harp, the work got off a magical start. Shot through with half-lights and at times burdened with an aching melancholy, the orchestra then explored a range of moods via a sequence of variations.

Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Phil. Photo © Richard Termine

Woodwind came to the fore in several places – a winsome flute solo in the giocosa variation and clarinet licks in a fast 6/8 variazione in modo di scherzo. Pastoral themes ambled after one another in a warm and wistful canon, a variazione ritmica featured bold, brassy statements with a hint of Hollywood and a dash of folk fiddle. A long, lush horn melody stood out, as did a brief radiant solo on muted trumpet. And good on Dudamel who turned to deliver a withering death stare when a rogue mobile phone interrupted the hushed reprise of the theme, before wrapping the work up with a jaunty gaucho malambo, Ginastera at his most foot-tappingly populist. With playing ranging from inspired to immaculate, if the LA Phil wanted to leave New Yorkers the perfect calling card this was it.

The short second half was more familiar repertoire: that other orchestral calling card, The Rite of Spring. Conducting without the aid of a score, Dudamel delivered a powerful interpretation that showed his players off to great effect. String tone throughout was earthy and darkly dramatic with solid, secure brass, dynamic percussion and characterful, if a little four-square at times woodwind. The opening was plangent, even baleful, though dynamics were too loud too soon and a tendency throughout Part One to settle for a mezzo forte or above robbed the music of some of its mystery. The suitably ponderous Procession of the Sage and a fiery Dance of the Earth packed a real wallop by way of compensation, though in the unforgiving acoustic of David Geffin Hall it was still a case of noisy, noisier and noisiest. Part Two offered a little more light and shade, violas and cellos particularly fine in the Mystic Circle of the Adolescents, before Dudamel whipped things up to deliver a jagged, threatening Ritual of the Ancestors and a searing final Sacrificial Dance.

Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Phil. Photo © Richard Termine

Those of us who can never hear The Liberty Bell without recalling the amplified fart as Monty Python’s cartoon foot descended from on high perhaps found it a little hard to keep a straight face in the spirited encore, but how nice it was to hear Sousa played by such a class act as the LA Phil.