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Alex McDonald
Photo by Evan Vanderwall
Alex McDonald

Yeast in the dough

Music | A secular environment, says pianist Alex McDonald, is the right place for his Christian calling

Issue: "Terrific and timely," June 29, 2013

The pianist Alex McDonald, 30, made his orchestral debut at 11, earned a Doctorate in Musical Art at Juilliard, and recently competed in the 14th Van Cliburn International Competition in Fort Worth, Texas. Currently teaching piano at Texas Women’s University, he is also an articulate and reflective Christian. McDonald spoke to WORLD after the first of his two Cliburn Competition recitals.

Yesterday you performed Haydn’s Sonata in B Minor, Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor, and Toru Takemitsu’s “Rain Tree Sketch II.” Do you have a sense of how well you did? The heart rate goes so fast onstage that it’s really hard to say. I’m going to listen to the recording and try to compare what I heard with how it felt and then make some adjustments.

What considerations go into selecting a jury-friendly program? The jury changes every four years, but you want to demonstrate variety so that you don’t come off as one- or two-dimensional. And your main consideration should be to program what makes you look good.

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What do the competitors do in their downtime? I doubt anyone is spending time with anyone other than their piano right now. I don’t really enjoy social events during a competition because it’s such a stressful time, and I think the other competitors feel similarly. Cliburn does their best to make it warm and welcoming, but it’s a little bit like The Hunger Games out there. Only we’re not killing each other. The jury is killing us [laughs].

What benefits would you hope to reap from a “good showing”? My No. 1 goal would be to have a mixture of playing and teaching. I would love to eventually be tenured at a secular school.

Why a secular school? There need to be more believers in secular academic environments. I had an opportunity to pursue a teaching job at a Christian college, but I didn’t because it’s really easy for me to cloister myself. What we see Paul and others doing in Acts is entering the cities, dialoguing with the cultures, and embracing the fact that a little bit of yeast is worked through the whole dough.  

Was that conviction why you spent 10 years living in Boston and New York City? A lot of people in Boston really love the music. So I guess I loved Boston for its sincerity. New York had more to do with my church there. I went to Redeemer Presbyterian, where Tim Keller is [senior] pastor. I really appreciated his teaching because of how comfortable he is relating our beliefs as Christians to academia and to the arts.

What role do you think church music should play in one’s experience of worship? In modern churches, we have a graven image of what the experience of God ought to be like, and we want our music to simulate that experience in us. It could be an organ or a praise team—either can create a God experience that may not have any of God in it at all. But people will feel like they’ve worshipped. And because the existential experience of God is more important to us than the [actual] experience of God, we’re satisfied—wrongly, I would add. If it feels impossible to worship God through styles that are uncomfortable to us, it’s because we’re asking the music to do for us what is actually an issue of the heart. The problem with the “worship wars” is that they’ve hidden the real issue: We are in love with ourselves, and we blame the music.

Listen to one of the pieces performed by Alex McDonald at the Cliburn Competition.

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