Places like Italy, China and Russia have become breeding grounds for the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. But this year’s field also includes a competitor from a spot that rarely makes the cut – Dallas. Here’s the story of the musician who’s finally getting to compete in his own backyard.
- KERA Radio story:
- Online version:
This won’t be the first time Alex McDonald has performed at Bass Performance Hall. He fondly remembers the last crowd he played for there.
“You could just like feel the A.D.D. in the room,” he says.
The hall on that day was filled with fourth graders.
“And three of the times I’m pretty sure they talked through the whole thing,” he remembers from the piano bench of Park Cities Presbyterian Church. “But one of them they kind of got into it, and they started clapping along with the rhythm, which was so distracting and so wonderful I almost completely botched the performance because I just loved it so much.”
That probably won’t happen today, when McDonald becomes the first native North Texan to compete at the Cliburn since 1977.
Even though he lives in Dallas, he’s staying with a host family in Fort Worth – Allan and Sandra Howeth.
“Of all the several million people in the Metroplex, there’re bound to be a lot of talented people,” Allan Howeth says. “Fortunately, one has shown forth enough to be part of this competition. Which I guess is probably overdue, but it just has to happen when it’s ready.”
When the tall, clean-cut McDonald finally takes the stage, he’ll realize a lifelong dream.
“Competing in the Cliburn means a lot to me because Van Cliburn was a childhood idol,” he says. I remember meeting him when I was about 8 years old – this 6-foot-4 giant – not knowing what to call him. I think I went with Mr. Van Cliburn, sir.”
McDonald grew up in Plano – his mom’s a piano teacher. He started playing at 4, and by the fifth grade, he wanted to make music his life. Since then, he’s attended New England Conservatory and earned a Ph.D from the Julliard School of Music.
Eight hours of practice a day has made him one of the world’s top young pianists.
McDonald’s road to the Cliburn hasn’t been easy. He applied as an 18-year-old but didn’t get an audition. At 22, tendonitis kept him out. And at 26, his doctoral work didn’t allow the necessary practice. Now he’s 30 – the age limit for the Cliburn.
“Just last year, I realized this was my last shot,” he said. “So I wanted to give it a try”
Going forward, he plans to perform and teach. But his life goal is much bigger.
“It sounds a bit like Miss America, but it would be great to heal the world through music. People need beauty.”
McDonald’s seen that healing power. In 2011, he traveled with fellow Julliard students to Ishinomaki, Japan – one of the areas hit hardest by the tsunami.
“The effect that music had on survivors living in shelters was just heartbreaking,” he says. “It reminded me of the potency of music. When you’re in a conservatory setting, you’re swimming in it and you’re happy actually just to get a break from it all. But then you see what an impact music can have on people’s lives.”
McDonald battles nerves before a big performance. But age and experience have taught him to channel that energy into the music. It’s one of the advantages he may have over younger competitors.
“It’s very different being in a competition near where I leave. I don’t have jetlag, I’m not traveling to unfamiliar terrain, I know the food, I know the culture.”
But that’s not all he knows.
“There’s perhaps a more frightening aspect – namely, I know just how big the Cliburn is.”