Just days before the Cliburn competition starts, the Park Cities Presbyterian Church in Dallas will be filled to overflowing with congregants and visitors, all come to hear a special free concert by the chancel choir—and by pianist Alex McDonald, 30, a Cliburn competitor who has been one of the church’s pianists for more than a decade.
That’s just one of the many ways Dallas-based McDonald gives back. He has organized relief concerts for survivors of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, played concerts for nursing home residents, organized and performed at a benefit for the Dallas Music Teachers Association—and won Bass Hall’s Bayard H. Friedman award for his performances for children in the Fort Worth public schools. At The Juilliard School, where he completed both masters and doctoral degrees in music, McDonald was an R.A. in the residence hall and president of the Juilliard Christian Fellowship. And (in his spare time?) he’s a busy and committed educator as well, teaching privately and at Texas Woman’s University.
When did he have time to fall in love, we wonder? But this spring, he became engaged to Rachel Li, a violist he met in the Christian Fellowship at Juilliard. They plan to marry next year.
“JCF was a great place to meet,” says McDonald, “because it had nothing to do with performance—as in, how am I doing? Do I measure up?” Li is now a grad student at Rice in Houston (closer than New York!), so “it’s a lot easier to see each other every two or three weeks. She is a joyful, beautiful person, and being with her gives me strength to do this crazy competition.”
McDonald leads a full, grown-up life of teaching and music-making, and has been away from the competition whirl for a while. What moved him to put himself back in the ring?
“There are several reasons why I decided to come back to competitions and try for the Cliburn,” McDonald says. “Firstly, I want to ‘represent’ my students, to show them I still know how it feels to put myself under pressure.”
But there’s a more personal reason, too.
“I had tendonitis in both arms during my undergrad [studies],” he says, “and spent no small amount of time following the injury ‘running’ from the competition world as a way of protecting myself. Over time, I began to feel that this flight was inserting a sort of emotional and spiritual divide within myself—that I needed to seek God’s contentment especially in the midst of all of a performer’s uncertainties. And of course, I want to grow as an artist.”
McDonald won second prize at the New Orleans International Piano Competition and at the Wideman International Piano Competition (both 2007). He has given solo recitals all across the United States, and in Canada, Israel, South Korea and Japan. And his doctoral studies have included an intensive study of composer Franz Liszt, who he calls “the ultimate Romantic.” What’s the attraction?
“Liszt is everything!” says McDonald. “He is academic, virtuoso, Romantic, visionary, and priest. He spans the 19th century in its diversity of styles and genres, and paves the way to the music of the future. [That’s us!] He was also an interesting guy, from all accounts!” He remembers thinking as a freshman that he hoped never to have to write a dissertation—but that if he did, “Dear Lord, please let it be about Franz Liszt.”
McDonald’s mother started her children on piano (Alex has four siblings) at about age four, and he remembers “falling in love” with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4—and with some works of Liszt—very early on. “One best early memory is of playing with SMU’s symphony when I was in fifth grade. I’ll never forget how awesome it was to collaborate with them…the sonorities just carry you.”
As an educator, he has some thoughts about making classical music accessible to children and teens.
“Music has become too abstract,” he says. “I think it must be connected to human experience. Nowhere is this more true than with kids, who are some of the most authentic representatives of humanity. At the same time, they must be educated. Great music, while it nourishes the soul, is an acquired taste.”
McDonald expresses a strong Christian faith that flows through his music-making.
“God is a creative God,” he says, “and his creativity is always life-giving toward others. The creation of beauty, while unnecessary, is in fact the most necessary [thing] of all if it gives expression to the self and blesses someone else, either through lofty ideals or penetrating realism. As such, all art glorifies God.”
As the only North Texan in the Cliburn competition this year, McDonald says he’s had “very positive feedback from friends who’ve watched me grow up and mentored me along the way. I hope that whatever happens makes them proud, as this is their accomplishment too. I could do none of this without them.”
◊ Here is a video of Alex McDonald playing Ravel’s Oiseaux Tristes (sad birds—not angry ones!):
Alex McDonald's Van Cliburn International Piano Competition Repertoire:
Preliminary Recital, Phase I
HAYDN Sonata In B Minor, Hob. XVI:32
LISZT Sonata in B Minor
TAKEMITSU Rain Tree Sketch II
Preliminary Recital, Phase II
RAVEL From Miroirs
RAVEL Oiseaux tristes
RAVEL Alborada del gracioso
LISZT Les jeux d'eau de la Villa d'Este
CHOPIN Nocturne in C Minor, op. 48, no. 1
STRAVINSKY Trois mouvements de Pétrouchka
BACH Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
LISZT Après une lecture du Dante (Fantasia Quasi Sonata)
BRAHMS Piano Quintet in F Minor, op. 34
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, op. 58
RACHMANINOV Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, op. 43
◊ To see a slideshow of all of the competitors, with bios and links to our profiles of them, click here.