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Songs in the key of life: We chat to Barry Douglas

By Una Brankin

Ahead of the Clandeboye Festival, its director and world-renowned pianist Barry Douglas opens the door to family life in his beautiful Lurgan home.

He's sometimes seen cycling around his quiet neighbourhood in Lurgan with his sons, and has even been seen – to some classical music fans' astonishment – having lunch in the nearby Ashburn Hotel.

Today, the extremely good-looking Barry Douglas is keeping out of the relentless rain behind the high wrought iron gates of his elegant two-storey home, which is tucked away on a short avenue between clusters of neat 1970s-built bungalows.

Casually dressed and softly-spoken, the superstar pianist and conductor buzzes open the gates and greets me at the glass-fronted doorway.

He's relaxed and laid-back but has a very direct gaze, a little disconcerting from someone so handsome and accomplished. (My mother, who has been to many of his concerts, would probably have swooned, even though he's not quite six foot.)

He's joined in the bright spacious vestibule by his wife of 22 years, former soprano Deirdre O'Hara, who still has a mild Lurgan accent despite having spent most of her married life in Paris, at the family's apartment near the Eiffel Tower.

She is as fair as Barry is dark, although his collar-length hair is heavily streaked – flatteringly – with silvery grey these days.

Cheery and down-to-earth, Deirdre immediately offers tea while her husband takes my coat and umbrella and leads the way down to the living room. "There's no need, really," he insists when I offer to take off my rain-sodden pumps at the doorway but the creamy carpet is foreboding and I kick them off just in case. Predictably, the long rectangular lounge is dominated, by a beautiful nine-foot Steinway piano, gleaming by the French doors like a thoroughbred racehorse.

"It's a girl," explains its proud owner, a smile beginning to twitch. "She was built in 2012 in Vienna and I fell in love with her. The different models all have names – this one is Dora. We had someone from Vienna here last night to make various adjustments and regulate her – it took him six hours. He treated her like a person; he coaxed the perfect sound from her. I've never seen anything like that before. Anyway, come sit over here, it's more comfortable."

The black and gold sofa is indeed deep-filled and luxurious, with a pattern reminiscent of an understated Versace, if you could imagine such a thing. The couple took their colour scheme "without much thought" from the ornate gilded masks Barry bought in a curiosity shop behind St Mark's Square in Venice in 2002 for Deirdre, who collects them.

Rows of framed photographs are lined up against the foot of the cream walls, waiting to be hung. The couple are in the process of unpacking many of their belongings from Paris, following their decision to have their sons, Fergus (17) and Liam (16) educated in St Michael's Grammar School on the outskirts of Lurgan, while daughter Saoirse (19) studies French and Spanish at Queen's University in Belfast.

"They're bi-lingual but we wanted them to be educated in English, and St Michael's is a good school," says Barry. "It's funny, they speak French with a Parisian accent, and English with a Lurgan accent. Quite a combination."

His own accent is vaguely south Belfast, where he grew up in what he describes as a non-musical family, though he may have inherited a creative streak from his grandfather, William Douglas, a respected stained glass artist and watercolourist. One of his impressive watercolours forms the backdrop of his grandson's portrait which hangs in the Ulster Museum; the original stands by the wall with the rest of the unpacked pictures from Paris. Seamus Heaney's big white cloud of hair stands out in one of the stacked photographs. The Enniskillen-born actor Adrian Dunbar will join Barry and his Camerata Ireland ensemble at the upcoming Clandeboye Festival to narrate magical animated films of Heaney's fables, The Two Mice, and The Fox, The Wolf, and The Carter.

"Yes, I think that will be a highlight," Barry (below) enthuses. "I'm really excited about it. I'm hoping Marie (Seamus's widow) will come to see it. I knew Seamus for 30 years; we all miss him."

Deirdre serves tea in dainty china cups in front of an unlit open fireplace, with marble and mother-of-pearl spheres in the grate.

"We lit it a few times when we moved in – I wanted to burn turf as my mother did in Sligo, where she was from, but it's all smokeless around here and we couldn't," the pianist explains, adding that his parents are no longer with us. Deirdre's elderly mother lives nearby, hence their decision to keep a house in Lurgan – surely the polar opposite to Paris. The couple met when Deirdre sang at Barry's sister's wedding in 1990 but she gave up her career to travel with him. He has praised her beautiful singing voice, hoping she'll resume her career one day, but Deirdre can't see it.

"I sing for the kids, that's about it these days," she admits. "Actually I sang here the other night for Liam's birthday."

"Yeah, that was good craic," says Barry. "There were two parties, one for family and one for friends. The adult one was the best, more rock and roll. Liam plays guitar – he's going to be a rock star! All the kids play piano but they're not going to follow in my footsteps. Fergus is into science and Saoirse is a linguist."

He's quite the intellectual himself. Excelling at maths and English, his teachers at Methodist College, Belfast foresaw a career in medicine for him. But since he heard two violins and a piano playing in a room at his school on Belfast's Botanic Avenue at the age of four, all he wanted to do was music.

His illustrious career has taken him all over the world and he has collected some striking artefacts on his travels. Delicate brass and Swarovski crystal chandeliers hang from the ceiling and an Italian room screen in black and gold stands in the corner of the living room next to an elegant 1812 Regency couch.

In stark contrast, there's a quirky mini sculpture on a wall shelf of Barry at the piano, splayed elongated fingers of his hand in the air and head held aloft, virtuoso-style.

"I got it for Barry's 41st birthday – he even put in the scar above eye where he fell as a toddler and got stitches," says Deirdre, in awe. "He even got his fingers exactly right – show them to Una, Barry."

He smiles and hold them out briefly. I've seen them before in very precise action, up-close on YouTube – they're an absolute marvel to behold.

He can also play the cello, clarinet and timpani but his real passion remains the piano. He points out a large black and white photograph of himself at 20, around the time he decided upon a career as a classical pianist.

"That was taken when I went to Paris for the first time – I walked into a cafe in the Latin Quarter and there was Samuel Beckett," he says, eyes widening at the memory. "I took that as a sign of approval of moving to France."

So, did he approach the writer?

"No – I was too scared. I was only 20."

There's another large black and white portrait photo of the couple in their 20s, shortly after their wedding, taken from a shoot in New York at 8am. They have their arms around each other and are gazing into each other's eyes.

"The photographer wanted one of me with my new bride," Barry laughs. "And that's me getting an honorary degree from (former Taoiseach) Garret FitzGerald, and there's one of us with us with Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson after they were married."

Unlike Ken and Emma, Barry and Deirdre's marriage has lasted and they seem happy and in-tune, smiling at each other frequently. They both cook in what Barry describes as their "urban country kitchen" – cream units and a marble-topped island. He turned vegetarian after a trip to India in February and likes to make spicy curries and Italian dishes.

The airy kitchen leads into another long rectangular room in moss green and cream, with a small glass-topped curved bar, which they inherited from the previous owner, and a dining table for eight. French doors open onto an L-shaped garden, which they've planted with lavender and olive trees, inspired by their frequent holidays to Provence. As it's Orchard County, however, there's a couple of apple trees, and a modest barbecue cooker in the corner.

As the photographer is waiting patiently by Dora, there's no time to see the four bedrooms at the top of the large black-framed spiral staircase. Deirdre offers to make him coffee while the maestro holds out my raincoat and recommends some Thai crime thrillers he has been reading. He and Deirdre have been watching the BBC drama An Honourable Woman, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, over a glass of Sauvignon Blanc when they get the chance; they're also latecomers to the West Wing and look intrigued when I tell them about Breaking Bad.

So it's not all high art for this absolutely brilliant musician – but he can certainly create it.

The cream of classical talent...

Now in its 12th year, the Clandeboye Festival of Music, which starts on Monday and runs to Saturday, brings together the best soloists from across the world to participate in a vibrant week of performance, teaching and special events

Joined by Camerata Ireland and festival director Barry Douglas, this superlative troupe of musicians establishes a programme of invigorating solo, chamber and orchestral music. Highlights include performances of a series of Beethoven Piano Concerti, and a unique opportunity to experience the flickerpix animation of Seamus Heaney's Five Fables with actor Adrian Dunbar and live musicians from Camerata Ireland, in Five Fables Live!

For full programme details, visit the websites www.camerata-ireland.com or www.goh.co.uk

A distinguished career...

Barry Douglas was born in Belfast in 1960, where he attended Methodist College, before going to study at the Royal College of Music in London

He was only 26 when he became the youngest ever winner of the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow in 1986, which set him off on a highly successful worldwide career

Barry received the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2002 New Year's Honours List for services to music, having performed with the top symphony orchestras throughout the world

In 1999, he founded the Camerata Ireland orchestra to celebrate and nurture the cream of young Irish talent

He is recording the complete Brahms for Chandos as part of a five-year long project and has also recorded the works of Krzysztof Penderecki, the Polish composer and conductor, and the Italian pianist and conductor Nino Rota

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