PianoLab 2024 Review – Chris Reid for LIMELIGHT

A stunning exploration of the impressionistic potential of the piano, in an immersive visual environment.

★★★★1/2 – Chris Reid for Limelight.


Housing two large rooms with floor-to-ceiling walls of LED panels for the display of visual imagery, Adelaide’s Immersive Light and Art (ILA) is a unique venue for the performance of all kinds of music.

It was here, in November 2022, that the inaugural PianoLab concert series took place, a groundbreaking four day extravaganza of performances of piano music accompanied by spectacular visual imagery.

Curated by pianist Benjamin Nicholls (who performed in the inaugural PianoLab series) and ILA creative producer Lewis Godwin, this year’s PianoLab concert series comprised five concerts over 14 and 15 June, offering a more condensed but no less diverse, innovative and high-quality program.

The music is presented together with imagery that characterises the music’s thematic material, and the visuals can be designed to complement an existing composition or to combine with a new composition to approach a gesamkunstwerk.

PianoLab commenced with Korean-born pianist Vivian Choi Milton’s recital entitled Flight, featuring compositions inspired by or representing birds in flight.

Vivian Choi Milton's Flight for PianoLab 2024

Milton began with Franz Liszt’s Deux Légendes, No. 1, St. Francis of Assisi’s Sermon to the Birds and No. 2, St. Francis of Paola Walking on the Waves, early impressionistic works inducing a mental picture of the action.

Légende No. 1 opens with trills in the piano’s upper registers to suggest twittering birds, and the LED screens displayed a 180-degree image of an ancient stone monastery overlooking a glorious vista of verdant, rolling hills with a dove hovering overhead.

Légende No. 2 concerns the story of St Francis of Paola who laid his cloak over the waters of the Straits of Messina so as to walk across it. The music starts majestically, suggesting the rolling sea, and the imagery shows the sea washing the shore adjacent to dry, brown hills.

In her comments, Vivian Choi Milton stressed the importance of including Liszt’s music in any piano festival, and her choices seemed ideal for the PianoLab opening.

Milton then followed with selections from Olivier Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus. An ornithologist as well as a composer, Messiaen infused his music with the characteristics of bird song, and the chosen imagery again reflected the character of the music — an image of a dove in a blue sky accompanied I Regard du Père; a grey sky with silhouetted birds was shown with VII Regard des hauteurs; and XII La parole toute-puissante was accompanied by a stormy sky with lightning flashes.

For XIII Noël, the image of the star of Bethlehem above the holy family resembled a Christmas card — while the images supporting Milton’s recital evocatively situated the audience within the landscape, they did not always reflect the complexity and emotional power of these remarkable compositions. A picture may tell a thousand words but music may tell even more.

Vivian Choi Milton's Flight for PianoLab

Milton concluded her outstanding recital with Kate Moore’s delightful Spin Bird, evidently inspired by Richard Bach’s novel Jonathan Livingston Seagull, with an image of gulls above an expanse of ocean bordered by high, jagged cliffs.

Offering an entirely different approach to the idea of the piano, Friday’s late evening concert opened with a collaborative work entitled Reflections, featuring live electronic sound by Anders Bogdanowicz using an array of synthesisers, imagery by Max Brading, and performance artist Jazmine Deng’s response to the play of sound and light. Brading’s brilliantly colourful, swirling abstract imagery characterised Bogdanowicz’s mesmerising electronic sounds which were derived from samples of recordings of piano music.

Jazmine Deng began her performance as if she were emerging from the audience, and her slow, contemplative movements around the space, using various props such as drinking glasses and a long mirror, and miming piano playing, were captivating. The whole effect was to create a continuum of sound, imagery and human movement, all originating in and extending the idea of pianistic performance and reception.

In their hypnotic piece Comminuere Communitas, Andrew Lang performed on upright piano, electronic keyboard and laptops and Tim Koch performed on Fender Rhodes piano and synthesisers, while Lang’s imagery saturated the immense screens. As the PianoLab program indicates, Koch and Lang “explore the question: ‘what space is left for the piano in 2024’ and seek to push the answers into uncharted territory.”

Lang sampled his own piano playing and, with Koch, combined these samples into a complex orchestration exploring the endless range of sounds that can be made using keyboard instruments. The cascading imagery showed piano keyboards, scrolling pianola rolls and other musical equipment morphing into abstract forms to complement the sound and reflect on the significance of the piano in western cultural history.

InComminuere Communitas, the sound and imagery were indissoluble, and in Reflections, the sound, imagery and physical performance combined into a novel and highly resolved artwork.

Saturday’s Fusion concert continued the exploration of musical impressionism and pianistic evolution with selections that drew on the flavours of early jazz, folk and late romantic piano. Pianist Michael Ierace and Seraphim Trio violinist Helen Ayres opened with Lili Boulanger’s Nocturne for Violin and Piano, Ayres’s passionate violin bringing out the achingly sweet melancholy of this short piece.

The poignancy continued, though with a little more bounce, with Claude Debussy’s La plus que lente, and the duo concluded with the Blues from Maurice Ravel’s Violin Sonata No. 2 in G major, which was inspired by American jazz, all accompanied by vivid abstract imagery. Ierace then gave us Claude Debussy’s Claire de lune beneath a full moon illuminating a rural landscape.

The concert concluded with pianist and vocalist Ciara Ferguson’s unique and engaging blend of musical flavours, including Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oh, What a Beautiful Morning, beside golden wheatfields at dawn, tunes by Paul McCartney and jazz legend Bill Evans, on the banks of a gently rippling forest lake, and finishing with a jazz-inflected Scottish folk tune setting the poetry of Robert Burns.

While the 2022 PianoLab series showcased great works for the piano, this series emphasised the evolution of piano composition and performance, and especially music’s capacity for visual suggestiveness. Importantly, this series confirms PianoLab’s significance in exploring and promoting the development and presentation of piano music.

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