Piano virtuoso Micah McLaurin to take stage with Charleston Symphony

Micah McLaurin practices Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in his West Ashley home. The grand piano in his bedroom is on loan from the College of Charleston.

Sometimes talent emerges from unexpected places.

If you go

The 7:30 p.m. concerts Friday and Saturday at the Sottile Theatre are sold out. The Charleston Symphony Orchestra is opening its Friday morning dress rehearsal to the public.

WHAT: Charleston Symphony Orchestra “Russian Masters” dress rehearsal, featuring pianist Micah McLaurin and conductor JoAnn Falletta

WHEN: 10 a.m. Friday

WHERE: Sottile Theatre, 44 George St.

COST: $25 general admission

MORE INFO: For tickets, call 723-7528, ext. 110, check out www.charlestonsymphony.com or go to the CSO offices in regular business hours, 572 Savannah Highway, Suite 100.

Who would have guessed that the McLaurin family of West Ashley would have a virtuoso pianist in its midst?

David and Karen have seven children. The oldest, Marielle, is 21; the youngest, Jesse, is 10. Micah McLaurin, at 18, is the third born.

His sister, Clare, 14, plays the flute. His sister, Catherine, 12, plays classical guitar, so he isn’t the only one who makes music part of his day.

Karen McLaurin liked to play some classical hits on the stereo: Handel’s “Water Music,” Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker.”

The music captured the young Micah’s imagination. David McLaurin said he likes a variety of musical styles, but Pink Floyd probably tops the list.

The piano was introduced a bit late. And it might not have happened at all. Chance, or fate, plays a role in these things.

One day when Micah was in the third grade, his paternal grandmother offered the family her piano.

“Where will we put it?” Karen wondered. The house was not especially large and full of kids, all home-schooled and all with their particular interests and objects.

“Well, let’s take it and see,” replied David, not one to look a gift horse in the mouth no matter the potential for clutter or cacophony.

Young Micah, though already 8 (most kids start earlier at 5 or 6), took to it quickly and soon was studying piano with Marsha Gerber.

Within a few years, he was tackling the works of the great masters and beginning to participate in competitions.

This week, he will perform with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, playing one of the great works of Romantic music, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2. It will be his second time playing with the Charleston Symphony; the first was three years ago when he offered one movement of a Mozart concerto.

Learning at home
Micah McLaurin, now 18, is shy, soft-spoken, a man of few words. He smiles broadly and easily. His interests include sports: He is a good swimmer, and he has played soccer and baseball. In September, he earned Eagle Scout status after building a garden at Our Lady of Mercy convent.

His father, an engineer by training, works in sales for Emerson Process Management, providing measurement and analytical devices, valves and final control elements, systems and software to industrial companies that rely heavily on raw materials.

His mother has a bachelor’s degree in marine science, a master’s degree in geography and a general proclivity for math and science, something she’s put to good use home schooling her children.

“I like it,” she said. “I like being able to choose what I think is important for my kids.”

Though she’s been coping with a nagging concern about just how well she’s doing, her efforts lately have been validated by the success of college senior Marielle. Daniel, too, is doing pretty well.

The family is hardly single-minded in its approach to life. The children pursue their various interests, and all of them like to go on mission trips, hiking and rafting excursions and sea explorations.

“How can you know what you want to do unless you’ve got some experiences?” David McLaurin said.

A mathematical problem prompted Karen and David to decide on home schooling. They wanted to provide their children with a solid Catholic education, but knew that paying the private Catholic school tuition — times seven, for all those years — was more than they could handle.

“But it was also a way to get to know my kids better,” Karen hastened to add.

It was a slightly less complicated logistical challenge. It was more practical. “For Micah — it worked out pretty well for him, because he could practice and travel.”

And that’s what he’s been doing.

Not special
He practices all the time, said Yuriy Bekker, Charleston Symphony concertmaster, who’s heard a lot about the young virtuoso from other musicians, including the late David Stahl, former music director of the CSO.

“This kid is very gifted,” Bekker said. “He’s on the rise; I think this young man is going to have a big career. We’re very excited to catch him on his way.”

Local symphony patrons are looking forward to the upcoming concert, which, because of McLaurin’s participation, emphasizes a sense of community, he said.

“People are very excited to see how our own members of the community are rising up in the cultural (landscape),” Bekker said.

Initially, the piano was in the living room of the McLaurin’s crowded house, but soon was moved into Micah’s bedroom. (Today, there’s a grand piano in there, on loan to the family by the College of Charleston.) The arrangement works out pretty well, he and his parents said. When the door is closed, the sound’s not too present — and, anyway, everyone is used to a lot of activity and noise. The kids are in and out. The two dogs and two cats add to the bustle.

“I don’t think I’d like to be a neighbor of ours,” Karen McLaurin said.

At home, the piano virtuoso with the bright future is just Micah, one of the kids, not special, not immune to doing a few chores, not treated with awe when his fingers are flying across the keyboard in a blur.

On stage, Micah McLaurin is focused enough on the music that he manages to tune out most of the potentially distracting sounds. Coughs don’t really bother him. Crying babies do, though. And whispering.

“Whispering is the worst,” he said.

Exposed
He plays a range of the piano repertoire, encouraged by his teacher of nearly five years, Enrique Graf. The music he loves best is the 19th-century Romantic literature: Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Schumann and, best of all, Chopin.

In 2010, McLaurin was co-winner of the Southeast Piano Festival’s Arthur Fraser International Piano Competition. The same year, he placed second in the Ettlingen International Competition for Young Pianists. At his first-ever competition, the International Institute for Young Musicians’ International Piano Competition, he earned a second prize. He was 13 and very surprised.

Most recently, at Oberlin College earlier this year, Micah won third place at the Thomas and Evan Cooper International Competition and got to play Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in the much-loved Severance Hall with the Cleveland Orchestra. It was a highlight of his musical career, he said.

“It’s an amazing orchestra,” he said. “The piano is amazing, too.”

Solo recitals are challenging and exciting; playing with accompaniment is a bit easier, he said.

“I don’t feel alone. ... I tend to be more free when I’m playing with an orchestra, and more relaxed.”

On the day of a performance, McLaurin tends to get pensive, quieter than usual, he said. He reaches inside himself for emotions that he can draw to the surface. He doesn’t play much piano, preferring to dwell in a serious, contemplative state, then let the music surge once he’s on stage.

Graf, who teaches at the College of Charleston and Charleston Academy of Music, said he was privileged to be able to teach “such a gifted and hard-working young man.”

“I have heard him perform in Switzerland, Italy, Uruguay and the U.S. He is such a professional, always pouring his heart out and dazzling audiences with his virtuosity.”

McLaurin and some other young musicians in training at the Charleston Academy of Music are the fruit borne of years of hard work at the college developing a strong piano program, Graf said.

“They see the support of the community, and it makes practicing all those hours worthwhile. It makes me very proud.”

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook.com/aparkerwriter.

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