Now Hear This: An Interview with Alex McDonald
Accomplished pianist and educator Dr. Alex McDonald served at the Guest Festival Director for the 2016 Basically Beethoven Festival. He programmed the concerts, finding the right mix of performers and pieces to offer to our audiences this summer, and performed at the July 17 “Menagerie” concert. You may have heard him speak at the concert or met him in the lobby, but here’s an opportunity to get to know him better with our Q&A series.
What piece were you most excited to hear performed during the 2016 Basically Beethoven Festival, and why? Well, to be totally honest, I was really curious how the Stravinsky would turn out. [Dr. McDonald arranged Firebird Suite for three pianos, performed at the July 17 concert.] It was a fun experience having such world-class pianists join me on the stage and commit so wholeheartedly to the project. I’m extremely excited to hear the Schubert cello quintet this weekend. It is one of the master’s very last compositions, and many consider it to be his greatest chamber piece. The second theme of the first movement is absolutely out of this world, and I can’t wait to hear it in Dallas City Performance Hall, which is acoustically an absolute gem.
What do you love about chamber music? How is it different from playing in a symphony? From playing solo? Chamber music is wonderful in that you can communicate with each musician. With concertos (which I love!), I find I communicate mainly with the conductor, and when I play solo, I end up just talking to myself, which I do anyways! I love the intersection of different musicians’ musical personalities, as well as the unique timbres of the instruments.
How old were you when you started playing piano? Why did you choose piano? I was almost 5! My mom chose it for me. She is a piano teacher, and I would build train tracks under the piano as a toddler. Or so I am told (I don’t really remember).
Am I seeing things, or do you use an iPad instead of sheet music? Why the change? I do use an iPad! I love that I can keep tons of scores on it, and I also like the Bluetooth page turner pedal that I can take with me and practice with. I’ve had some pretty funny and regrettable page-turning experiences (once my page-turner’s necktie was casually hanging out on the lower keys, and I was wondering how to navigate around it).
What type of music did you listen to as a kid? Have you always listened to classical music? I have always loved classical. I also listed to a fair amount of ’90s contemporary Christian music – I’m talking about Michael W. Smith. I think that’s why I tend to be so cheesy now! These days, I love listening to Bach cantatas, Nora Jones (my wife, Rachel, has it on in the car), or sometimes perusing whatever is a “latest hit.” I do enjoy mainstream pop. That way, when a passage in classical music gets difficult, I can “shake it off.”
What types of music do you like to share with your son? Well!! As of today, my son is 2 months and 9 days! He’s pretty non-discriminating at this point, although I did notice that he was decidedly happier when I practiced Schubert than Rimsky-Korsakov. I guess I’m proud of him for that! He is also rather fond of “the diaper song,” which naturally accompanies one of the less glorious parts of parenting.
Who’s your favorite composer to listen to? To play? That’s a hard question! I really have always loved Liszt, but I think Rachmaninoff would have to be a strong favorite—after it’s comfortably in my fingers, of course! I really love listening to and playing Bach.
What’s your favorite sound (musical or non-musical)? Least favorite? I like the sound of a full symphony orchestra, in all its various combinations. My least favorite – I guess I’m not too fond of sprechstimme.
Once you leave this world and reach the pearly gates, what celestial concert are you looking forward to? John Cage’s 4’33”?? (Just kidding.) I think I would most want to hear Bach’s Et resurrexit, or maybe the slow movement to Rachmaninoff concerto no. 2.