Rhinegold Photo credit: © Abu Dhabi Festival
Piano duo Maki Namekawa and Dennis Russell Davies (pictured) collaborated with artist Cori O'Lan for Pianographique

Claire Jackson

Review: Pianographique at Abu Dhabi Festival

9:51, 5th April 2018

Pianographique
Works by Steve Reich, Maurice Ravel and Philip Glass with live visualisation
Maki Namekawa, Dennis Russell Davies (pianos); Cori O’Lan (visualisation)
24 March
Emirates Palace Auditorium, Abu Dhabi Festival

Two bow-shaped objects appear on the vast, elongated screen; the forms take their energy from the corresponding on-stage pianos and the four beings pulsate repeated motifs. Steve Reich’s Piano Phase opens Pianographique, a special collaborative concert for two pianos and digital imagery, part of the Abu Dhabi Festival. Now in its 15th year, the annual event presents a key opportunity to showcase international artists in a region where the profile of Western classical music is still in its infancy. Kudos, then, to piano duo Maki Namekawa and Dennis Russell Davies for programming Steve Reich, a composer who is virtually unknown to this audience. Piano Phase, with its percussive, repetitive – relentless, even – themes is not the obvious gateway to minimalism. It’s easy to forget how claustrophobic this music can first appear; some members of the Emirates Palace auditorium expressed visible discomfort, a few even left the hall.

The visualisation – created in real-time by Cori O’Lan – didn’t help matters. The double-helix figurines were cartoonish, and, despite the artist’s best intentions not to emulate Disney’s Fantasia, the designs felt infantile and too literal. The fast-moving on-screen imagery in particular overpowered the pianism. (Sidenote: while this reviewer attempted to overcome bias towards the music, it must be acknowledged that a residual hidden leaning towards matters on stage may exist.)

Pianographique_1Happily, Ravel’s Mother Goose suite for four hands was more effective. There was some sense of ensemble playing between the three artists, but there were moments when the graphics felt a few seconds behind or ahead of the pianists, themselves a tight unit. The visualisations are performed in real time – thedynamics produced by the instruments are converted directly by the computer into digital paint brushes – perhaps the timing is a technological glitch that will improve over time. Abstract cloudscapes and watery views melted across the backdrop that was sympathetic to, but not directly reproducing, an Impressionist style. This performance comes hot on the heels of a recent large-scale visualisation for the orchestral version of Mother Goose, which was premiered at the Walt Disney Music Hall with the LA Philharmonic.

The visualisations from that show were modified for the Abu Dhabi festival. Some arabic influences were noticeable, such as the calligraphic section that etched from right to left across the screen. It’s worth highlighting that Cori has created this software from scratch, splicing art and science.

The concluding work – Glass’s Four Movements for Two Pianos – was written for Davies and Namekawa, commissioned and premiered by the Klavier Festival Ruhr in 2008. The duo clearly feel a close association to the music; the kaleidoscopic themes were beautifully shaped, entwined and passed back between the instruments. Although the visualisation was premiered by the same trio in 2013, movements two and three were given new treatment for this festival. The swirling ink brought to mind a Rorschach Test gone awry; the illustrations were at their best in the abstract.

The last decade has seen an increase in this type of performance. While O’Lan has taken significant steps to find greater nuance than, say, the pyrotechnics witnessed in Lang Lang’s iTunes concert some years ago, the genre can still be mined for improved subtleties and contrasts. Nonetheless, Namekawa, Davies and O’Lan are to be commended for their innovative work; ditto the festival team for challenging and developing its public.

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