Clandeboye Music Festival: where food doesn't play second fiddle
Piano star Barry Douglas tells Joris Minne about reinventing his iconic Clandeboye Music Festival
Franz Liszt used to make women in concert halls swoon and men tremble with his virtuosity and his long, wild hair. The Polish pianist and composer who dominated music's Romantic Period of the 19th century was renowned for his explosive performances.
His concerts were sometimes so volcanic in their intensity he would destroy two or three pianos, such was the strength and emotion of his playing. His music is still considered by professional pianists to be among the most difficult to perform.
Belfast's Barry Douglas has a touch of the Liszt magic. He has the virtuosity and the hair. But he also has something altogether longer-lasting: an ability to organise and administer, engage and inspire and a commitment to the young musicians of Northern Ireland.
Douglas's principal occupation as a world-class concert pianist is supplemented by his other job as leader of Camerata Ireland, a 31-strong chamber orchestra which, for over 10 years, has toured the world wowing audiences in concert halls across Europe, Russia and the US.
This week, the maestro has returned with his orchestra to the Clandeboye Estate, near Bangor, where, until this Saturday, he is running programmes encouraging young musicians to become even better performers. Part of the Clandeboye Festival is also to focus on the connections between music and other arts including drama and literature (Stephen Rea and Field Day Theatre Company will be there tonight with actress Jane Brennan, reading from Joyce and other great Irish writers), as well as fashion and food.
"Expression is made through so many different channels," says Douglas over lunch in Belfast's James Street South Bar & Grill. "Drama, literature, dance, visual arts and music are all about expression, identity and the enhancement of life; food does pretty much the same thing."
He's right, of course. The artist tends to lead a perceived solitary and concentrated existence, devoting his or her life to their chosen discipline and there's no doubt that chefs who pursue excellence share the same lone wolf outlook on life. Their dedication to their restaurants are on a par with any top creative and it so happens that the really good ones can make a decent living too.
Anyway, Douglas is devoted to transforming classical music's local reputation as impenetrable, tedious, intellectual and the opposite of fun into something altogether more accessible.
"Once you start to understand more about anything, the sense of enjoyment and inspiration is heightened and food is the clearest instance of this. Twenty years ago in Northern Ireland we were happy to go out for a meal and a few beers and as long as the craic was good, the quality of the food played second fiddle," he says.
"These days, Belfast has food bloggers, Tripadvisor is king and restaurants compete on quality of food as well as service and environment. This has probably come as a result of increased exposure of food through cookery shows and travel and it shows me what might be achievable in the world of classical music."
This year's festival featured food very prominently for the first time, as young catering trainees from Belfast Metropolitan College were given a masterclass last night by local chef Paul Rankin.
"The Clandeboye Festival has spread its wings from being a purely musical event aimed at encouraging young musicians to a cultural event which celebrates Northern Ireland's love for everything from the arts to artichokes," says Douglas.
He may appear introspective and deeply intellectually powerful, but his enthusiasm for Northern Ireland and willingness to make the country a better place through music and culture cannot be understated. This is the man who left a beautiful home in the heart of Paris to bring his family to Lurgan.
That's putting your money where your mouth is. It's this commitment that's persuaded the likes of pharmaceuticals firm Randox and the Arts Council of NI to sponsor Camerata Ireland. The Belfast Telegraph is also on board as a media partner.
"When Randox came on board, they explained they believed Camerata stood for innovation, excellence and youth, just as they do," says Douglas. "I'm thrilled we are gaining this kind of traction in the business and corporate world but I'm also looking forward to generating new audiences, enlisting new talent and positioning Northern Ireland as an acknowledged cultural powerhouse. Through our emerging young musicians we will achieve this."
* The Clandeboye Festival is taking place at the Clandeboye Estate until this Saturday.
* Events to come include the Barry Douglas Recital tonight, followed at 10pm by an appearance from Belfast-born actor Stephen Rea, who was originally due to perform last night. "We knew that an actor as much in demand as Stephen might be called away, but we also knew he'd make a great effort to be with us tonight," said Douglas.
* Those with Barry Douglas tickets can see the Stephen Rea event as well tonight for the special price of £10, instead of £15. Tickets are available on the door or from the Grand Opera House, tel: 028 9024 1919.