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Datebook: Rousing Rachmaninoff and world premiere from local composer mark ISO’s 2nd concert of the season

Micah McLaurin ISO
Illinois Symphony Orchestra
Pianist Micah McLaurin makes his Illinois Symphony Orchestra debut with Sergei Rachmaninoff's "Piano Concerto No. 2" on Nov. 7 at the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts.

The Illinois Symphony Orchestra recently returned to live performances and will play a dynamic program for its second concert of the season on Nov. 7. In selecting the 2021-22 lineup, music director Ken Lam had the symphony’s audiences top of mind, many of whom haven’t experienced live music in more than 18 months.

“What we want to do is to make sure that our audience comes to the concert and leaves feeling really happy,” said Lam. “One of the things that I said when we were planning this was,'Let’s have really good tunes.' Everybody loves Rachmaninoff. We’ve done the third piano concerto, but we have not done the second.”

That will be the job of pianist Micah McLaurin, who makes his Illinois Symphony Orchestra (ISO) debut with Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 2.” McLaurin first met Lam in Charleston, S.C., McLaurin’s hometown. Lam directs both the Illinois Symphony and the Charleston Symphony, and he invited the young pianist to perform with the latter orchestra.

“That’s how we go to know each other,” McLaurin said. “We performed the Mozart ‘Concerto No. 20 in D Minor’ in 2017. That was our first time working together. We didn’t want to go to Charleston again; we wanted to go somewhere else.”

While sheltering at home during the pandemic, McLaurin experimented with different musical genres like jazz and pop, often blending classical music with other forms. Social media was an important outlet during quarantine, and he nurtured his interest in fashion along other artistic pursuits.

“I wanted to get better at arranging and playing by ear,” McLaurin said. “Something I felt was missing from just playing other people’s music and the standard classical repertoire was that I didn’t feel like I was creating enough. I didn’t feel like anything was completely mine. I wanted more of a creative outlet. That helped me to discover more in music and I think it helped me love the traditional repertoire more—I played it because I wanted to play that music, not because it was my only choice.”

In addition to Rachmaninoff, the ISO will premiere a new work by local composer Roger Zare called “Fanfare Solaris.” Zare is a member of Illinois State University’s music faculty. Lam’s connection to Zare goes back much further than their time together in Bloomington-Normal.

“We were at Peabody when Roger was an undergrad, so I’ve known him for a very long time,” Lam said. “It’s wonderful to have him in Bloomington-Normal. I like his music. It’s very approachable, so nobody’s going to be scared by it, but it’s also really well crafted.”

Dimitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9 concludes the program. The Illinois Symphony performs at the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts at 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 7. For tickets and more information, visit ilsymphony.org.

Lauren Warnecke is a correspondent for WGLT, focusing on arts and culture.
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