It was a mostly quiet but beautiful evening on Thursday for the local debut performance of pianist, electronic musician and composer Hania Rani. This might be exactly what Rani wants. The sometimes raucous energy of Thalia Hall’s main ballroom, which was standing room only, was gone. Instead, the room was set up with a large seating arrangement of folding chairs; This gave everyone in the sold-out crowd great sightlines and downtime as we navigated a delicate collection of Rani’s tracks. It created a warm and inviting environment, not unlike experiencing a traditional classical music performance, but without the potential vibes.
This arrangement allowed Rani to focus on performing her music. And in turn, the audience was focused.
Distractions abound when it comes to today’s live music experience. However, Rani’s unique stage set and fluid movement in each piece created a riveting show.
Rani performed outside the crowd for most of her set. He kicked off the night with album opener “Oltre Terra,” a relatively short but evocative instrumental song from his 2023 album “Ghosts.” Unlike the short length of the album track, Rani elaborated on the length and scope of the song during her live performance. This would set the tone for the evening, with songs like “24.03” and “Dancing with Ghosts” (both featured on “Ghosts”) featuring new, expansive tones. Rani didn’t just perform. She took her listeners on a musical journey.
Rani is a master artist with instrumentation, so witnessing how she creates her songs from scratch is a treat for dedicated fans. Onstage, she switched between multiple pianos, keyboards, and synths strategically placed throughout a compact setup to create the multiple layers that make up each of her songs. She was playing the piano with one hand, her arms outstretched, while creating synth elements with the other. At times it seemed as if he could barely reach between one instrument and the other. But Rani never failed to create a dazzling, intensely physical display.
Rani’s voice was as catchy and clear live as on her albums. A few songs with a “danceable” tempo, such as “Hello” and “Thin Line” from “Ghosts,” inspired Rani to take a lively two-step as she continued creating the tracks. Some audience members at the back of the room, standing by the bar, slowly swayed forward. This ensured a fluid performance between songs that was as engrossing as it was awe-inspiring.
While most of Rani’s electronic-heavy arrangements have her back to the room, the two traditional pianos she switches between during quieter musical moments are composed facing opposite sides of the stage. Her long hair often covered her face, creating another barrier between herself and the audience.
It’s no surprise, then, that Rani played for more than 30 minutes, eventually—and quickly—appreciating the band member accompanying her (moving between an upright bass and what appeared to be instrument pedals) and the crowd. But no one seemed to complain. During this moment and several others, one or two in the straggling audience couldn’t help but exclaim in admiration at Rani.
But the most surprising moment of the night was when Rani completely retreated into her own world and played tracks from her classic 2023 album “On Giacometti.” With just a piano, Rani focused on her classical roots, reminding new audiences who might be less familiar with her earlier work of the breadth of her musical output. Unsurprisingly, the audience loved it and by the end of the evening Rani was embraced with a standing ovation. His meditative music found a home in Chicago.
Britt Julious is a freelance critic.