Master Pianist Barry Douglas Waves the Baton
Winner of the Tchaikovsky Prize on playing, conducting and the Clandeboye Festival
'25 years? '86? Yeah, you're right. God!' Barry Douglas seems genuinely surprised when I point out that it's a full quarter of a century since the then 26-year-old Belfast pianist won first prize in the world's top piano competition, the Tchaikovsky in Moscow, becoming the first non-Russian to do so since the young Texan Van Cliburn barnstormed his way to gold in 1958.
It was a massive moment in Douglas's career, but in fact came perilously close to never happening. 'I wasn't even going to go,' he recalls. 'I remember I was in Phoenix Park in Dublin, talking to my manager in London. And I said, "Look, I have had enough of this".'
Douglas had won bronze at the prestigious Van Cliburn competition in Texas the previous year, but had clearly had his fill of the ferociously competitive hothouse of the international competition circuit. 'I can't stand this. I'm frail for this stuff, I don't have the psyche for it,' he told his manager. 'I don't have a thick skin, the pressure's too much.'
Some gentle encouragement ('Go out and have a good time, play some music,' she told him) persuaded Douglas to book a plane ticket, and the rest is pianistic history. (Watch a video produced during the competition below.) For many years afterwards the ultimate accolade of being a Tchaikovsky winner defined how audiences perceived Douglas.
'At the beginning you're elated,' he remembers. 'Then after five or ten years, when people keep talking about it, you want to say "No, that's in the past. You want to move on".' Douglas retains, however, a deep and abiding affection for concertgoers in Russia, where he returns to play and conduct every year. 'I love my link with that audience. It's a little bit like when I go home to Ireland, I feel that connection. They're kind of my people too.'
Talk of home focuses attention on Camerata Ireland, the chamber orchestra Douglas formed in 1999 as a showcase for the cream of homegrown Irish musical talent. At the time it was a huge leap in the dark, even for a musician of Douglas's experience. 'I've never formed an orchestra before, I'll probably make a hash of it,' were his initial feelings.
He needn't have worried. 'What was amazing was that it took off. Money came floating to us, offers of tours came floating to us. It just took its own life on.' The orchestra has since performed to great acclaim in the USA, South America, China and most of Europe. Uniquely, Camerata also enjoys the joint patronage of Irish President Mary McAleese and Queen Elizabeth II, strong testimony to the role that it has played in breaking down cultural and political barriers.
Central to Douglas's activities with Camerata are its annual residencies at the Clandeboye Festival near Belfast and at Castletown House, Co Kildare. From the beginning, Douglas conducted Camerata in purely orchestral pieces as well as playing concertos, and though this seemed a new departure for him at the time, he had in fact been brandishing a baton much earlier in his musical development.
'When I was a teenager I conducted choirs and small orchestras in Belfast.' he recalls fondly. 'I went to Methodist College, and they gave me lots of opportunities.' At that time Douglas was a clarinettist, not a pianist, and thought his future lay either with the clarinet or on the conductor's podium.
That all changed after a seminal encounter with Felicitas LeWinter, an ex-pupil of Emil von Sauer (himself a pupil of Liszt) who happened to be visiting her sister in Belfast. LeWinter's first reactions to Douglas's playing were not positive. 'She thought I was awful. I just couldn't do anything.'
But the 16-year-old's innate musicality and enormous natural talent for the instrument clearly made an impression on LeWinter. A summer of intensive lessons followed. 'She put me on the right road.' says Douglas, and 35 years later he is still following it.
Outside of Camerata, Douglas also has strong links with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra in Dublin, where he recently directed both of Brahms's piano concertos from the keyboard, without a conductor: a hugely tricky operation, and one very rarely attempted. Douglas, a tireless seeker after fresh artistic challenges, was delighted with the concerts, and with the collaborative attitude of the RTÉ orchestra.
'It really did work,' he comments. 'The orchestra went with it, they bought in,' he says, well aware that if they hadn't, the outcome could have been a total shambles technically. 'It could have fallen right flat on its face. But everybody was glued to me, and to their section leaders, and listening. It was unbelievable.'
The success of the RTÉ Brahms project could have consequences for the exclusive contract Douglas has recently signed with the Chandos label, to record every note Brahms wrote for solo piano, a mighty undertaking which will occupy the next decade.
The concertos, performed conductorless for the first time on record, will now probably feature in that series, a prospect Douglas clearly finds exhilarating. The Chandos deal will also include the complete piano music of Schubert, and is a major vote of confidence in an artist whom the company call 'a consummate professional, both musically and personally', and 'one of the great pianists today'.
Chandos are undoubtedly correct in their assessment: the impression Douglas leaves in conversation is of a musician absolutely in the prime of his artistry, one who shuns easy celebrity to focus on projects close to his heart, doing new things in new places, not repeating himself ad nauseam on the lucrative international piano circuit.
And this summer, from August 29 to September 3, he is on home turf at this year's Clandeboye Festival, playing, conducting and mentoring youthful talent, with a particular focus on Liszt, the bicentenary of whose birth falls in 2011. The opportunity to be there is one that no self-respecting local music-lover should be missing.
Barry Douglas and Camerata Ireland play St Peter's Cathedral in Belfast on August 3 as part of Feile an Phobail. Book tickets here.