Pianist Barry Douglas takes to the National Concert Hall stage on June 19 for the last installment of the NCH's Livestream Series. Here we talk to the Camerata Ireland Director about his career to date, the upcoming performance and life during lockdown...
Why did you decide to be a pianist? And did you come from a musical background?
My parents were music lovers but not musicians. I had the good fortune to be able to learn lots of instruments as a child - piano, clarinet, cello, organ and timpani and also conducting choirs and small groups. But it was the chance meeting with Felicitas LeWinter - a pupil of a pupil of Liszt (Von Sauer) who gave me a whole summer of lessons when I was 16 that convinced me to concentrate on the piano. I started practicing 8 hours a day.
How did winning the Gold Medal at the 1986 Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition affect your career?
It was a huge event for me, and my life changed overnight. My hotel room in Moscow was so full of flowers that I couldn't see the window. My agent in London had a pile of faxes - such was the pull of this wonderful competition. It has been the most extraordinary time since then - with travel, great halls, beautiful places, wonderful musicians and conductors.
What was your vision when you founded Camerata Ireland in 1999?
I had noticed that artists have always commented or celebrated or berated political decisions or issues - and I thought that we musicians should applaud the Good Friday Agreement which brought peace to Ireland. It was only meant to be a couple of gala concerts - Stormont and St Patrick’s Hall, Dublin Castle. However, there was huge amount of interest from international presenters, especially in the US. One of the first things we were involved in was a fantastic Irish Festival in the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. It was a celebration of Ireland under the direction of Jean Kennedy-Smith. My vision for the orchestra was a celebration of classical musical talent in Ireland, to fly the flag abroad, in a sense. Another was to encourage our new young talent and give them performance opportunities. And thirdly and equally, it was to show the world that we were an all-island orchestra and that sort of co-operation and harmony is a very powerful asset and very beneficial to the whole of the island.
Camerata are in the midst of a 2019/2020 National Concert Hall residency. What does the venue mean to you? What do you enjoy most about performing here?
The NCH is one of the most beautiful halls in the world and since my debut there in 1984 under the auspices of the Limerick Music Association, I have loved every minute on the stage there. To have a residency in the hall has been such an honour and excitement for us at Camerata Ireland. We love playing there and building our audience. From the beginning in 1999, Camerata Ireland has undertaken many tours each year internationally but have not done many concerts in Ireland- I am in the process of trying to build on our residencies in Cork and Derry, and also with this residency in Dublin at the NCH, it gives us a real central foundation. It is a very special thing for us to be at the NCH. We also have our annual Clandeboye Festival in Co Down in August . This year will be a virtual performance schedule, which is very exciting - we will look forward to our 20th anniversary next year in August 2021.
What was your thinking behind the selection of pieces for your upcoming performance?
I wanted to reflect all the different emotions that we are all feeling at this difficult time - the programme should reflect the ups and downs we are going through - so it had to have a variety of tempi, keys, styles and emotion.
How do you prepare for a performance?
Obviously, the programme has to be totally ready well in advance, but the performance starts for me as soon as I get out of bed on the morning of the concert - then you are focused on the music until you finish the last note of the concert. It is high pressure, but also very exhilarating.
What musicians inspire and influence you?
I have always had lots of inspiration from two great Russian pianists, Emil Gilels and Sviatoslav Richter- I was very lucky to hear many of the concerts in London and France. Also - the genius of Daniel Barenboim (conducting and playing the piano) has been a big inspiration. My teacher Maria Curcio was an enormous influence as she had studied with Artur Schnabel - the great Austrian pianist.
As we are all faced with adapting to new circumstances and overcoming challenges, what has given you most solace and comfort during this time?
I am just humbled by all the people who risk their lives for us - health and care workers, delivery people, supermarket and food industry workers. I have discovered that I love gardening- although, I have to be careful with my hands. Also, cooking - but I’m hopeless!
Are you reading anything interesting at the moment?
Milkman by Belfast writer Anna Burns and Veg in One Bed by Huw Richards - trying to get my own vegetables into the ground - I am a slightly vegan vegetarian.
What experience are you most looking forward to when restrictions are lifted or when we get to other side of the pandemic?
Eating out! Having meals in some of my favourite places in Ireland, such as La Cave in Dublin, Ait Eile in Enniscrone and Glandore Inn in West Cork.
What music are you listening to at the moment?
Sometimes late at night I will listen to my favourite tenor in Wagner, Jon Vickers, singing such roles as Tristan in Tristan und Isolde and Siegmund in Die Walküre. My son Liam who is an usher at the NCH and is studying at BIMM in Dublin is getting me into Led Zeppelin!
Do you believe that arts can help people through these times? If so why?
It is such a tough time for musicians at the moment, and very dangerous for their financial and mental well-being, as well as all for the people that support performances, backstage teams, piano technicians, managers - I always say that people need live performance - music, theatre, ballet, opera. It resonates and lifts us and can almost explain in a very subtle way what the human condition is about. I predict that when the authorities can sort out how to do the logistics after the virus, people will be ravenous for live music.
Barry Douglas plays the NCH Livestream Series on Friday, 19th June at 8pm - watch live (and catch up afterwards) here on RTÉ Culture.