Dallas — Pianist Alex McDonald came to wider local attention when he gave a brilliant performance as a contestant in the 2013 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. He didn’t make it to the next round, but he impressed everyone in Bass Hall and many thought he should have moved forward.
He will show why on Tuesday when he appears on the third season opening program for Dallas Chamber Symphony in the Dallas City Performance Hall. Music Director Richard McKay conducts.
McDonald will play Shostakovich’s fireworks-laden Piano Concerto No. 1. Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite and Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings compete the program.
The concerto is actually for two solo instruments with a trumpet added. Trumpeter Oscar Garcia Montoya will do the honors. Shostakovich started out to write a concerto for the trumpet alone but eventually added the piano part. The concerto is also a musical joke in that Shostakovich filled it with los of quotations from other pieces—from Beethoven to his own compositions with some well known folk tunes tossed in for good measure.
You don’t have to recognize all of the quotes to enjoy the splashy concerto. McDonald will bring them out, but he thinks that the concerto can stand by itself without knowing the backstory.
“I always try to see what composer aims to do in a piece,” he says, “but I am not a complete slave. I want to know their intentions first but I feel free to go out on my own and put my own stamp on it.”
This is why audiences enjoy hearing different artists play the same piece. If they bring individuality to a performance, the piece can sound completely different. This was what was so impressive about McDonald in the Cliburn. Many of the contestants played the same pieces and we heard them over and over again. Unlike many of them, McDonald brought a refreshing and personal take on the music.
“Knowing the notes is just the start. You need to have the ability to shed your training and give the piece a fair shake,” he says. “This concerto requires very aggressive playing. Shostakovich was under the thumb of the authorities that wanted him to write lighter, happier music. You can tell that he is overdoing it, especially in last movement. But you have to maintain a kind of physical Zen to not tighten up because of the difficulties. That would defeat the concept of the concerto.”
In many ways, this concerto is a natural for McDonald. He has a formidable technique combined with a willingness to take chances. He will bring out all of the sarcastic aspects of Shostakovich’s concerto.
It should be great fun.