To all of you who have ever sat back and let the soothing strains of beautiful music wash over you, lulling you into much-needed relaxation, here's a peek at the schedule of one of Ireland's most renowned pianists: Barry Douglas. I'm catching up with the Belfast-born musician ahead of his performances at the West Cork Chamber Music Festival at the end of this month, but pinning him down is the problem.
He’s in the US when we first make contact, but leaving for Moscow, where he’s judging the prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition. So far this year, he has performed in countries and cities including Tokyo, Moscow, Barcelona, Ostrava, Finland, London, Leeds, Colorado, Naples, Palermo, Buenos Aires, Brazil, Sydney and Adelaide, as well as Sligo, Drogheda, Dublin, Belfast and Derry. And we’re only halfway through the year. Breathless yet?
We arrange an early morning call to his Moscow hotel. Dialling the number, I'm intrigued to realise what Ian Fleming fans have long known: the country code for Russia is 007. An electronic message greets me, letting me know that they're recording the call. That's fine, so am I.
I don't really have a favourite. I don't play anything that I don't feel in a sense in love with
“Moscow has changed,” Douglas says when we’re connected, his soft Northern Irish accent a little blurred from tiredness. “Russia has changed since the Soviet Union went away. On the news this morning they were talking about Chernobyl, which was 33 years ago. That was the year I first went to Moscow. It was wonderful then, but the Soviet Union was completely tough.”
The site of the Ritz Carlton, where Douglas is staying, used to be the Intourist Hotel. "It was a very Soviet hotel, just beside Red Square, they razed it, and built this very capitalist one instead." That first trip was in 1986, when Douglas won the outright gold medal at the Tchaikovsky Competition, the very same one he is judging today.
“My prize was 2,000 roubles. And you couldn’t take bring currency out of Russia. It took me five hours to spend it. I bought a suitcase, linens . . . This time I went to the bar and ordered a club sandwich and a glass of red wine. It cost 2,000 roubles, and it took me about 20 minutes to eat it!”
How does it feel, I wonder, to be back, judging the competition he won all those years ago? Apart from some necessary qualms about judging: “how can you judge musicians? Rubenstein would only give someone nought out of 10, or 10 out of 10, saying you can either play the piano or you can’t . . .”
Douglas also feels great empathy for the contestants. “When I sit there on the jury table, and these youngsters walk on, and I know how daunting it is, knowing that the first performances of Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Scriabin, were all on that stage.”
As for his own preferences, he says “I don’t really have a favourite. I don’t play anything that I don’t feel in a sense in love with. These are the cliches, but you have to feel you have to have a link with the composer. The audience want to hear the composer’s innermost thoughts, feel in touch with their soul.”
Practice is vital, and endless. Concert playing is highly physical, so fitness is important. The tiredness always hits Douglas on the third day, though he tries to look after himself as much as possible on the road. “On a tour, I have to be careful of diet, don’t drink, get as much sleep as I can. Going east is very hard. West is best, you’re gaining time.” He gets through a passport about every two years, so I’m pretty sure he has some hard-won travel survival skills.
“I wanted to be a long distance lorry driver when I was a kid,” he laughs. “So I guess I’m getting my dream. But,” he adds, “about eight years ago, I decided never to check any luggage again. I prefer to travel light, it works for me. If I need clothes, I send them to the laundry. I can do five weeks on a carry on.” As a bad packer myself, I’m very impressed. But what about those unnecessary things you just can’t do without? “I used to be very superstitious. If a tour went well, and I got something from a hotel or a present or something, I’d bring it with me, as a kind of mascot. But you get locked in to that, so I’m trying not to do it.”
If Moscow has changed, so too has Belfast. “It was a miserable place,” Douglas recalls. “Not because of the people, but because of the conflict. My first opera experience was Rigoletto, and there were three bomb scares during it,” he says. “It was the final bomb scare when the Duke of Mantua threw up his arms and said ‘that’s it, I’m off to the pub’.”
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Camerata, the all-Ireland orchestra Douglas founded to mark the signing of the Good Friday Agreement
While his Sligo-born mother helped him discover a love of traditional music – which has seen him set up the trad group Celtic Orbit ("playing with them is the only time I can tap my foot!") – behind the scenes of the conflict-ridden city, Douglas found a wealth of musical opportunity.
“The musical life, the education, that was very strong,” he says. He learned clarinet and piano, “my parents paid £1.50 a year for me to have piano lessons, it was heavily subsidised. And we’d all meet. You’d have these myriad groups, orchestras, and they’d all leave the religious baggage behind.”
Douglas attended Methodist College in Belfast, more commonly known as Methody. “It was a huge school, and it had a really strong music department.” He remembers the rugby team, “hard types who’d train during the day,” but who would also turn up to sing Carmina Burana with the Senior Chorus.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Camerata, the all-Ireland orchestra Douglas founded to mark the signing of the Belfast Agreement (the joint patrons are President Michael D Higgins and Queen Elizabeth). There is evident pride in his voice as he describes those days, the first gala concerts in Ireland, and in the US, at the invitation of Jean Kennedy Smith; and the successes of Camerata since, including their Clandeboye Festival and, currently, being artists in residence at the National Concert Hall.
As we talk, Douglas speaks with a warm, relaxed charm. His conversation is peppered with the names of illustrious musicians, conductors and composers who have become friends. I remark on his extraordinary recall. “Not really,” he says. “But when these big things that happen in one’s life, you never forget them.”
There is a piano in his hotel room, so he can practice. Electronic pianos have made a massive difference. “I can practice using headphones, without disturbing the other guests”. I tell him I think the other guests might rather adore being disturbed by such music. When a piano isn’t available, he’ll practice in the concert hall.
Home is in both Paris and Lurgan, where Douglas is trying to protect some down time with the family. He is married to the singer Deirdre O’Hara, and the couple have three (now grown-up) children. “This year I’m taking July off. I’m not a good gardener, but I got into gardening a bit. I’ve had some success with three apple trees and one pear tree.” The satisfaction comes, he says, “just to see something you planted three weeks ago hasn’t died.” He’s making a herb garden. “Not basil or rosemary. I have no problem with mint and parsley, and my chives are great . . .”
Talk of food is making my mouth water. Does he cook? “Yeah, very badly. The boys and I do Sunday lunch and let the girls stay in bed. I turned vegan last year. One son is vegan, one is vegetarian, and the other is a French girl, she eats brains and everything.” I’m picturing noisy family fun, the clamour of cooking, laughter and conversation, and then after all that is done, perhaps it will be time for some more beautiful, beautiful music.
Barry Douglas performs at The West Cork Chamber Music Festival, which runs from June 28th to July 7th westcorkmusic.ie. Camerata Ireland and Barry Douglas are Artists in Residence at the National Concert Hall throughout 2019 and 2020. nch.ie. Camerata's Clandeboye Festival runs August 16th to 24th camerata-ireland.com/clandeboye-festival