The 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition kicks-off tomorrow, May 24, and runs through June 9. Alex McDonald will be playing in the preliminary rounds at 4:50 p.m. on Friday, May 24, and 9:25 p.m. on Monday, May 27. Semifinalists are announced on May 30. You can watch a live webcast here, or purchase tickets here.
Three weeks before The 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, Alex McDonald is standing in the hallway of his alma mater, Canyon Creek Christian Academy in Richardson, flanked by a crew of teachers who remember him as that kid who played piano (or “pianuh” as they pronounce it). Now McDonald is 30, engaged, and statuesque. He’s got that classic All-American look not every blonde-haired, green-eyed person can pull off. His eyes turn into half-moons whenever he laughs, which is fairly often. His teachers hold out copies of D Magazine’s May issue and make McDonald sign his interview.
McDonald is the first Dallas-area native to compete in the Fourteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in more than three decades, and that fact makes him about as close to a local classical musician rock star as it gets (that is, if such a distinction exists). It also makes his former teachers swoon a bit.
“He was full of life, couldn’t sit still. He’s really, really grown up,” says Brenda Galimore, the principal of Canyon Creek where McDonald attended from sixth to ninth grade. “There was always a little bit of reserve with him, but he was more of a practical joker than the reserved pianist that we know today.”
She glances over her former student. He’s wearing a brown suit jacket, holding a mug of coffee in one hand and a tote of sheet music in the other. McDonald may look grown up, but he is still a ball of energy. Since I began following McDonald in February, the only time I’ve ever seen McDonald quiet is when he sits on the piano bench where he tunes everything out. I once watched McDonald plow through the fluttery, thirty-second notes from Liszt’s Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este while someone vacuumed in the same room, the whirring noises of the machine filling the room as McDonald kept pedaling through the music. At Canyon Creek that morning, he cracks corny jokes and tries to break that awkward, inevitable silence you get when you’re in a room full of children staring you down.
McDonald arrived at Canyon Creek around 8 a.m., and he is set to give a testimony and treat Canyon Creek students to a few short solo pieces. When he takes his position in front of the student body in the sanctuary of the school’s church, there’s a picture of the young pianist from the D Magazine photo shoot flashing across the screen usually reserved for church announcements.
“Yes, that is me in my underwear,” McDonald quips.
The kids look up at the photo and giggle. The tagline “CCCA Welcomes Home Their Own: Dr. Alex McDonald” is placed strategically over the Canyon Creek alum’s boxers. On the day of his photo shoot, McDonald explains, he forgot his pants. It’s the truth.
Two weeks before The Cliburn, McDonald looks relaxed. He is working his way through a plate of eggplant parmigiana inside Carbone’s on Oak Lawn. Earlier he walked over from Park Cities Presbyterian Church, where he practices on a 9-foot Steinway inside the worship hall. It was a good morning session, McDonald tells me.
McDonald has been following a strict practice plan. On that day, it means practicing seven hours before a recital run-through in the evening. He’s alternating every other day between music for the Preliminary 1 and Preliminary 2 rounds, as well as dedicating a little bit of time for the music from the semifinal round each day.
“Today I’ll continue with the Rachmaninoff. Tuesday through Sunday I’ll be looking at the Beethoven Concerto No. 4 for the concert on Sunday,” he says. “You’re not spending too much time on pieces, because there’s just too many of them. So the Lizst jeux d’eaux: it has a lot of notes. I can’t spend more than half an hour on it every day. The Stravinsky gets two hours every other day, and that’s one of the hardest pieces of repertoire.”
In addition to practicing, McDonald has been performing as much as he can, wherever he can. He’s had at least one performance at Park Cities Presbyterian Church, two at Canyon Creek Christian Academy, and a smattering of others throughout the city for different groups of people, both large and small.
What scares him, though, are the legatos, a musical term for notes that are connected and played smoothly together without any pauses. The simpler the passage, the harder it is to play.
“It’s a phobia that I have,” he says. “Making a smooth legato line with an instrument that uses hammers? Kind of a mystery of physics if you ask me.”
Legatos are at the top of the list, but there are no shortage of anxieties for a pianist heading into the Cliburn: the structuring in the Liszt sonata, tension development in the Goldberg Variations (everything’s miniscule and both hands are constantly colliding), and the fact that there are four other contenders playing Petrouchka in the competition. I begin to wonder how Alex McDonald manages not to hyperventilate over his eggplant parmigiana right now.
“How do you stand out amongst all those Petrouchkas?” he wonders. “It’s basically nuclear war. It’s that kind of piece. Nobody goes to Petrouchka because they want to hear the beautiful singing lines. Nobody would subject themselves to that torture unless they were trying to show something. It’s a statement piece.”
“What are you trying to show?” I ask.
“That even though I’m 30, I’m still young,” he says. McDonald is one of the oldest pianists in the competition, but he doesn’t want the judges to focus on his age. “You laugh, but think about gymnastics. How many 30-year-olds do you see? They’re abusing their bodies and there’s a point when their bodies can’t take it anymore. When you’re 18, you can push through anything, and you’ve got nerves of steel.”
Three days before The Cliburn, McDonald calls me as he’s driving back to Fort Worth. He just finished filming a live segment on D: The Broadcast and he’s going back to his piano monastery (his fancy name for the home of Allan and Sandra Howeth). The Howeths are one of the 30 Fort Worth host families generously lending their privacy to each of the Cliburn pianists. They provide a room for the contenders to practice, a borrowed Steinway concert piano, and food.
“They’re the same people who hosted Joyce Yang, so I’m feeling the positive vibes,” McDonald says.
His friend Yang was a 2005 Cliburn silver medalist, which is basically the same thing as winning the whole competition from McDonald’s perspective. Since her Cliburn success, Yang lives the jet-setting life that people typically think classical musicians live: tours, international recitals, recordings. McDonald’s dreams are more modest. Right now, all he is hoping for is that a Cliburn medal might pave an easier path to a tenured teaching position at a school like Southern Methodist University. Even though he works more than full-time (McDonald’s an adjunct professor at Texas Women’s University) he hasn’t had benefits or insurance since he left college. He’s lucky he hasn’t been in a serious car accident.
The Cliburn could change his life. It could change anyone’s. A $50,000 prize, along with three years of professional management, could turn McDonald’s financial woes upside down and launch him into a performance career – not something every Juilliard graduate is lucky enough to have. But for all the pressure that he’s facing, McDonald stays amazingly well-grounded. I wonder how he has time to call me. If I were him, I’d be utilizing every second of every day to practice. Driving? No piano? I’d still sing the music in my head.
But McDonald doesn’t work that way. He knows if he isn’t careful his stress will skyrocket. He constantly tries to remind himself that his work on this earth isn’t about him. He doesn’t focus on winning, instead trying to believe that there’s something greater than himself and his achievements. Last Sunday, he received permission to leave Fort Worth to attend service at Park Cities Presbyterian. The Cliburn organization isn’t used to having contenders who live in the area with cars, so McDonald had to ask.
“It kind of levels my brain out to get away from it all, to remember that I have a life outside of this competition,” McDonald says. “Honestly, in fifteen years, this competition won’t matter. If you win, it doesn’t make you a great artist. If you lose, it doesn’t make you a bad pianist. It’s a sport. People are coming for the music, yes, but they’re also coming for the spectacle.”