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Genre-defying pianist Micah McLaurin returns home for his Spoleto debut

Genre-defying pianist Micah McLaurin returns home for his Spoleto debut
June 2023

McLaurin challenges the conventions of classical piano in his YouTube videos reinterpreting songs by Madonna and Lady Gaga

In videos posted to his YouTube channel, pianist Micah McLaurin reinterprets songs by Mariah Carey, Lady Gaga, and Madonna while dressed in dramatic costumes, many by designer Zaldy, who is known for outfitting RuPaul and Brittany Spears, as well as Lady Gaga herself.

Classical music might be a centuries-old form, but at the hands of concert pianist Micah McLaurin, it courses with new life. The West Ashley native first discovered his love of the piano at age eight and in no time was hailed as a wunderkind. At 14, he played his first solo performance with the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra and by 18, attended Philadelphia’s prestigious Curtis School of Music, before earning his master’s at The Juilliard School. 

Since childhood, classical music has been McLaurin’s calling—if not his obsession. But that doesn’t mean he always colors inside its notoriously rigid lines. Donning dramatic ensembles, he plays with a vibrant virtuosity all his own, be it a Chopin nocturne or an original arrangement of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” Shared widely on social media, his music is at once accessible and captivating and is converting new classical enthusiasts along the way, prompting some to call him the “Liberace of the millennial generation.”
While McLaurin’s career has carried him from acclaimed performance halls to Italian palazzos, this year’s Spoleto Festival USA brings him back home. On June 9, alongside  fellow Charlestonian, conductor Jonathon Heyward, McLaurin will take the Gaillard Center stage for the first time to perform Edvard Grieg’s piano concerto.

Micah McLaurin returns to Charleston, where he grew up and learned to play the piano, to make his Spoleto debut at the Gaillard Center.

First Impressions: My grandmother was a musician and played the piano at her church for 40 years. When I was eight, she gave us her old upright piano. My mom bought a book called Teach Yourself to Play the Piano and tried to introduce the instrument to each of her children. Nobody really took to it, even me at first. But I came to it on my own and started teaching myself to play. I got a teacher not long after that.

Playing the Universe: I’ve always been drawn to the sound of the piano, in particular. It’s so powerful and regal and one of the few instruments that truly stands on its own—all of the emotion and music is there. It’s as if you’re playing the whole universe. 

Language of Music: My mother played classical music in the car when I was younger, and it gave me butterflies. It encompasses such a wide range of emotions. And the piano is really at its best; it shows off the instrument to its broadest capabilities. When it comes to defining classical, I think of it not so much as a time frame but as a language of music. Like visual art, its sole purpose isn’t necessarily to be entertaining but to be thought-provoking. It doesn’t always speak for itself. You have to listen and figure out what it’s trying to say.

Spoleto Debut: I used to go to the Spoleto festival when I was young. My dad was a volunteer with the Chamber Music Series. I would go to that every year and wonder when I would play in it.

Dressing Up: I don’t want my performances to be sterile. Why not celebrate? Why not put glamour into it? Why can’t you elevate everything? That’s why I bring a visual element to my performances. Classical music is very traditional, and there were people who told me not to do that. But I didn’t listen to them. When you put on a costume, it can feel like an amazing fantasy—the same way music can be. 

Social Power: Classical music can be alienating to today’s listeners; it’s from previous centuries and is still done relatively the same way, if not even more austere. But social media can draw people in. It’s an access point, attracting people who wouldn’t usually look at classical to see something they can connect with, rather than just hearing it. 

Beyond the Classics: Rethink classical performance expectations while watching Micah McLaurin perform his “Rhapsody in Gaga.”