Reflections on a “Wunderkind”

by

comment

It’s been several weeks since 15-year-old Micah McLaurin became the youngest-ever pianist to perform a full recital under the auspices of the College of Charleston’s International Piano Series. This series is one of our most prestigious local musical institutions, having brought nearly a hundred distinguished pianists to town — including keyboard legends like Earl Wild and Leon Fleisher. And it’s taken me awhile to process the amazing experience.

I’ve been following this local prodigy’s phenomenal artistic development ever since he was eleven, when I staged the first of his three public recitals at my old Millennium Music classical room. In addition to providing him with quite a bit of press exposure (also click HERE), I’m pleased to have become one of his minor “mentors” along the way. I’ve taken him to quite a few classical concerts (mostly Spoleto) and advised him on the best piano CDs — even loaning him quite a few from my own collection. We’ve often yakked back and forth online about music. We’ve joked about him saving me a front-row ticket for his Carnegie Hall debut — and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if that comes to pass.

How then, you might ask, can I write an honest review about a performance by a young man in whom I’ve taken a quasi-paternal interest? How can I, being one of his biggest and most wonder-struck fans, pretend to any degree of objectivity? Still, I believe my insights into his wondrous talent are as deep as anybody’s. So, here goes — but don’t expect a conventional review.

His program was a particularly difficult and ambitious one, encompassing every major period of classical music from the Baroque era through the twentieth century. Having written his concert program notes, I first thought that he was setting himself a well-nigh impossible challenge — but his teacher (and IPS director) Enrique Graf had faith that he could pull it off — and Micah has never ceased to surprise all of us with his accomplishments.

To begin, every great composer bequeaths us a little bit of his soul in his compositions — which is what makes music perhaps the most “immortal” of the arts. It takes a certain musical maturity, on top of finely attuned sensitivity, to catch these wisps of the composer’s deepest essence, and to express them with the characteristic sound and style that best brings his creations to life in the listener’s ear. Then there’s the matter of period style: touch, tone, pedal technique and expressive devices all vary considerably from one period to the next. Even among accomplished adult pianists, you’d be hard-pressed to find one who’s a master across the board.

That’s part of the miracle of Micah’s playing: he has the uncanny ability to capture just about any composer’s unique sound and spirit and convey them to his listeners. Micah’s most special touch is for the great romantics: his interpretation of Rachmaninoff’s blazing Sonata No. 2 — which ended his recital — was an absolute marvel, wringing every drop of this emotionally tormented composer’s feverish, neurotic passion out of the music, while delivering the usual spectacular bravura display — almost as an afterthought. In his earlier rendition of Chopin’s deep and bittersweet Ballade No. 4, he expressed that composer’s subtler, more introspective emotional language to near-perfection, while laying down some brilliant virtuosity that never called attention to itself. Technical prowess rings hollow without a heart and soul behind it.

The rest of the program was nearly as remarkable. His Haydn sonata (No. 38) was a model of restrained classical-era grace and clarity. His go at Prokofiev’s brief, but wide-ranging Sonata No. 3 offered thrilling contrast between the composer’s hallmark motoric drive and his more lyrical side. Only in Bach’s French Suite No. 5 — the recital’s opening work — did Micah sound a little out-of-touch with the old master’s unique keyboard style. Don’t get me wrong: he delivered the clean articulation and contrapuntal clarity that Bach demands, along with several moments of real charm — but his playing was a bit stiff and straightforward, with only minimal ornamentation and little of the improvisational flair that the best pianists bring to Bach. It was as if Micah has not quite come to terms yet with Bach’s mind-bending cerebral complexity … but give him a year or two. Micah continues to improve by leaps and bounds — and, as his bright future unfolds, the sky’s the limit.

The rousing standing ovation — from the biggest (sold out!) crowd to ever pack the Sottile for this series’ recitals — brought us the same encore that had followed Micah’s concerto performance (with the Charleston Symphony) a few evenings before: Liszt’s shimmering and sensual transcription of Wagner’s Love-Death. And — as before — it was simply breathtaking: perfectly paced, with crystalline tone and aching emotionality.

As he told me afterwards, he was a little upset that he made more mistakes than he had hoped. But they were mostly minor slips that only stuffy old music critics like me (and other pianists) might catch — and he recovered nicely from all of them: yet another characteristic of a true piano pro. But, with all said and done, it’s about time that — with two back-to-back public appearances at major local venues — a pretty good chunk of Charleston’s music lovers have now heard him; in the process, many of you have experienced your first true musical Wunderkind. And — trust me — he’s just beginning to hit his full stride. So, now that many of you have joined his growing throng of marveling fans, just join me in watching him go. I’ll be keeping you posted.

Add a comment