The Fourth Annual Paderewski Festival in Raleigh is a celebration of the famed Polish pianist and composer, who visited Raleigh twice during his epic performing career in the early half of the 20th century. In fact, this year marks the 100-year anniversary of Paderewski's first performance in Raleigh, January 23, 1917. This is the nature of the festival – steeped in history while presenting some of the finest young pianists on the world's stage today. The festival's program each year is notable itself, presenting fascinating connections between Paderewski's life, Polish history, and the history of Raleigh.
Each year the festival hosts young musicians of immense talent, often competitors of the Chopin Competition and other international programs. Although having undergone some programmatic changes, the opening concert of the festival at St. Mary's School was no exception, featuring 23-year-old Charleston native Micah McLaurin. McLaurin stepped in to do the concert some 60 hours before, after his friend Eric Lu, who was scheduled to perform, suffered a finger injury. Both pianists are students of Robert McDonald at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Despite technically being a student, McLaurin is already in the middle of a well-established performing career, with accolades worldwide. His musicality is understated yet perfectly clear, and well suited for the emotive Romantic works on the program.
Musically, the festival celebrates Paderewski's own compositions in tandem with the Romantic and late-Romantic composers whose music Paderewski would often perform. The program opened with four Rachmaninov preludes – three from Op. 23 and one from Op. 32, each one with a different mood to offer. McLaurin steered Rachmaninov's swift explosions of unbridled passion arrestingly in the former two (Op. 23, numbers 4 and 5), but a real highlight was No. 6, where the sorrow that McLaurin brought out in the melody was palpable.
"The Maiden and the Nightingale" from Enrique Granados' Goyescas seemed to be more unpredictable than the Rachmaninov, until a romantic, folk-like melody shines through. Along with this melody, McLaurin portrayed each landscape convincingly, including delicate flurries imitating birdsong towards the close.
César Franck's Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue is seldom played in public concert, and for good reason – the tonal shifts within and among each section are difficult to navigate without abandoning a consistent sense of tonality for the listener. With McLaurin's deft interpretation, it was a highlight of the concert. McLaurin's precise articulation of chordal attacks and releases really shone, especially in the Prelude.
No Paderewski program is complete without his countryman and predecessor Chopin, and performances of Chopin's work could be reminiscent of Paderewski's own. Post-intermission was all Chopin, beginning with a delightful interpretation of everyone's favorite, the Nocturne in E-flat (Op. 9 No. 2). McLaurin's fluidity with Chopin's cascading patterns made the whole piece feel organic and unique to the listener. The darker Nocturne in C minor (Op. 48 No. 1) was a clever choice in juxtaposition, with its tension and chilling final melody. McLaurin closed his program with Chopin's Sonata No. 2, often dubbed the "Funeral March Sonata" due to the instantly recognizable third movement of the same name. The first two movements contrast the somber third, which in fact could have been the highlight to many – McLaurin's depth of emotion transitioning from the serious opening melody to the calm and lyrical middle section (and then back) was powerful and mesmerizing.
Although this program was unique, there are still three more performances of the Paderewski Festival, continuing next weekend and featuring three more dazzling young artists from around the world. See our calendar for more details.