On January 27, 2023 Orli Shaham makes her Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra debut performing John Adams’ piano concerto “Why Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?” with David Robertson conducting. In this Insider Interview with Classical Music Communications, Shaham talks about the “gnarly,” aspects of the work, Martin Luther, working with the FRSO for the first time and more.
Please give us some insight into the composer John Adams, and this piece, “Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?”
The style of “Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?” is classic Adams. It has a great deal of rhythmic drive and intensity, and thick and rich harmonies that are quite gnarly. In fact, he uses the word “gritty” to describe the sound of the first movement. There are some beautiful moments of repose where he sets the scene for lovely reflection, almost meditative kinds of sounds. The piano becomes part of the orchestra in those moments, for example, in the second movement. In the third movement, the overflowing rhythmic joy is similar to the qualities in “Hallelujah Junction,” (one of my favorites of John Adams’, which I recorded with Jon Kimura Parker on my album “American Grace”).
Can you explain the title of the piece?
The phrase has been attributed to Martin Luther, the 16th century theologian. This was one of those situations like “Hallelujah Junction” – John Adams thought that it was a title just waiting for a piece. He had the line first, and then conceived of the composition. There’s a lot of devilish influences, just like in Lizst’s Totentanz, or the devilishly difficult writing of Paganini, who was himself considered a devilish virtuoso. And there are references to gospel, which are also related to the theme.
This is your debut performance in Finland. You’re familiar with the composer John Adams, and the conductor, David Robertson, of course. What about the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra?
I’ve heard so many great recordings from this orchestra, and I’ve known many wonderful Finnish musicians. I’m very excited to actually go to Finland to work with some of those same musicians.