REVIEW: PianoLab by Chris Reid for Limelight Magazine


A four-day festival of music for the king of instruments is a unique and wonderful treat, especially as it is set in a performance space, The Lab, that enables the blending of live action with visual effects. Featuring concerts, masterclasses and talks running from noon to night, the PianoLab program embraces classical, jazz, contemporary and experimental musical genres, and showcases nationally and internationally renowned performers as well as many of Adelaide’s best and brightest young pianists.

The Lab is a multifunction space operated by the Light Cultural Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation that supports creative developments using evolving technologies, and the venue is frequently used to stage innovative musical and artistic performances. Two walls of The Lab are completely covered by LED screens that display a range of imagery, with the performers situated in front of them. It’s an intimate space — an electric salon — that challenges artists, composers, writers and performers to reimagine their oeuvres or to develop entirely new forms. For PianoLab, the performers have worked with video makers Allen Macintosh and Fraz the Wizard to choose the visual material that accompanies their programs.

The first day of PianoLab featured three concerts by young pianists. In the first, entitled The Romantic Piano, Jenny Su opened with Frederic Chopin’s Barcarolle to the animated accompaniment of a boat being slowly rowed across a languid sea. Haowei Yang followed with Medtner’s 4 Lyrical Fragments against images of expressionistic paintings, though the saturated colour of the imagery was perhaps a little too colourful for this meditative work. Jennifer Chen performed two pieces by Fanny Mendelssohn’s Das Jahr: May – Frühlingslied, with animations of cascading flowers, andJune – Serenade, with an image of a snowy landscape. In between, she gave us Tchaikovsky’s December – Christmas against a colourful painting of scenes of Venice. Dylan Henderson concluded the recital with three Chopin nocturnes against a backdrop of fields of coloured flowers under a starry sky.

In all cases, the imagery evoked the Romantic character of the selected pieces. It took a little time to get used to observing the screens while listening, and the best approach seemed to be to glance at the imagery long enough to appreciate it and then return one’s attention wholly to the music. Importantly, there was some thoughtful and sensitive playing by all the performers.

The second concert, Midnight Music, featured three of the finest younger pianists in Adelaide. Yundi Yuan opened with the Allegretto from Shostakovich’s Piano Sonata No 2 against a background of swirling blue light, her insightful reading bringing out the mercurial character of the work. It’s to be hoped we can hear her perform the entire sonata sometime. Shawn Hui then gave an eloquent and absorbing rendition of Carl Vine’s dramatic Piano Sonata No 1, accompanied by twinkling starlight sucked into a vortex. And finally, Esmond Choi introduced us to Crumb’s Eine Kleine Mitternachtmusik(Ruminations on Round Midnight by Thelonious Monk) for amplified, prepared piano. Choi introduced Crumb’s work by showing images of the impossibly complex score on the screens, and he performed it against a backdrop of fog-bound church spires at dusk. As well as playing the keys, Crumb’s work requires the performer to use a mallet inside the piano and to pluck the strings, and Choi’s captivating performance was a revelation. This was a most memorable concert.

The ability to arrange music is essential to jazz, and the Emerging Jazz Voices concert showcased three young pianists performing their own compositions and their arrangements of some popular standards and lesser-known works. Darcie Bills explored stride piano and ragtime styles, including Scott Joplin’s Pineapple Rag; some music theatre, with her arrangements of Richard Rodgers’ Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered and Leonard Bernstein’s Maria; and her own composition River’s Song. Lastly, Bills was joined by Ciara Louise Ferguson in a four-handed performance. Then Ferguson, singing as well as playing the piano, performed her arrangement of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oh, What a Beautiful Morning and blended Celtic folk with jazz in a delightful setting of the Scottish poem Ca’ The Yowes (Pagan/Burns). She also featured her own compositions, and her At Dusk was particularly attractive, with images of forests in misty twilight. Accompanied by imagery suggestive of a screensaver, Andrew Casey performed his arrangements of Arlen’s Over the Rainbowand Mancini’s Days of Wine and Roses, his own composition Your Embrace for voice and piano, and in a more classical vein, Debussy’s Toccata from Pour le Piano.

The PianoLab schedule includes Stephen Whittington’s talk and performance on the music of Satie, Konstantin Shamray’s exploration of the music of Scriabin, Finnish pianist Paavali Jumppanen performing Mozart and Beethoven, Joe Chindamo playing Puccini, the Mark Simeon Ferguson jazz trio’s renditions of songs by women writers, and performances by Stephen McIntyre and Paul Grabowsky amongst many others. Most interestingly, there will be pianist Anna Goldsworthy and actor/narrator Humphrey Bowers in Nocturne, a theatrical work with Goldsworthy performing Chopin’s music while Bowers reads letters and texts by George Sand.

Well-chosen imagery accompanying musical performance can enhance the listening experience, and Esmond Choi made the best use of the technology during the first day of the festival program, but in some performances the imagery was less imaginative and added little to the appreciation of the music. Curated by Elder Conservatorium director Anna Goldsworthy with contributions from Anne Wiberg, PianoLab is a valuable experiment but the emphasis ultimately remains on the selection and performance of the music. Hopefully it will become an annual event, bringing concentrated focus to popular and lesser-known piano literature.

PianoLab is a co-production of the University of Adelaide's Elder Conservatorim, the J.M. Coetzee Centre for Creative Practise, Recitals Australia and Light Cultural Foundation supported by the Australian Government's RISE Fund.

Read the full review in Limelight Magazine