On stages throughout the world, the name of Rex Lawson is synonymous with the pianola (player piano): not the honky-tonk piano that can be found in Westerns and bar back rooms, but the original pianola, a sophisticated instrument that demands a high technical level.
The pianola, in front of the keyboard of any large concert piano, operates this keyboard with wooden fingers covered with felt.
The greatest pianists and composers of their time, such as Grieg, Rachmaninov, Debussy, Ravel, Mahler, Richard Strauss and Stravinsky, made recordings for pianola.
These days, the preserved specimens of these “Rolls-Royces” of the pianola are fewer than their semi-automatic versions, and only a small handful of specialists is able to do justice to these rolls.
Rex was born in Bromley, in Kent, in 1948. He studied at the Royal College of Music and the University of Nottingham. Fascinated by the pianola upon discovering it 1971, he decided the leave behind a traditional musical career to dedicate himself to pianola. At Queen Elisabeth Hall in London, in 1972, he brought the playing of pianist and composer Percy Grainger back to life, nearly ten years after his death, in Grieg's Concerto for Piano.
Rex Lawson made his international debut in 1981 in Paris, playing the world premiere of Stravinsky's Les Noces (1919 version), under the baton of Pierre Boulez. Over the course of an international career, he has performed George Antheil's Ballet mécanique as a soloist at Carnegie Hall in New York, again “resurrected” Percy Grainger for the closing of the Proms in 1988 and played for the first time nearly the entirety of Stravinsky's works for pianola, including The Rite of Spring at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris. In the past few years, he has had two pianola concertos dedicated to him, written for him by the British composer Paul Usher and the Venezuelan Julio d'Escrivan and, in 2011, he created a work for chorus and pianola, “Airplane Cantata” by Gabriel Jackson, commissioned by the BBC, winner of the Choral Prize at the 2012 BASCA Awards in London. In 2007, he played the premiere pianola performance of Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Brussels Philharmonic, and, in 2013, he performed The Rite of Spring at Oxford University for the centennial of the work's premiere.
He has performed in several international festivals.