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Barry Douglas on his disillusionment with Northern Ireland politics and the unifying power of music

As the 18th Clandeboye Festival gets under way, world-renowned pianist Barry Douglas chats to Linda Stewart about his life and nurturing young musicians

International pianist Barry Douglas
International pianist Barry Douglas
Barry Douglas conducting
Barry relaxing at home
Barry at the piano
Barry with his wife, soprano Deirdre at their Lurgan home
Barry meeting the Queen at a display of artworks at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, in June 2012 during Her Majesty’s two-day visit to Northern Ireland as part of her Diamond Jubilee tour

By Linda Stewart

It can't be easy to stick to a routine if you are Barry Douglas. The world-renowned concert pianist was born in Belfast but now lives a semi-nomadic lifestyle, constantly taking off for the far corners of the Earth for tours and concerts.

"I'm used to it because I've been doing it for years. After 9/11 things became more tiresome in the airports, but I have a way of switching off and just getting from A to B," the 59-year-old musician says.

These days he and his family split their time between Lurgan, where his soprano wife Deirdre grew up, and Paris, the city they have called home since the late 1980s.

Now home to prepare for the 18th annual Clandeboye Festival, Barry wouldn't have it any other way.

"I travel and play concerts. It's a great life and I feel very lucky that I get to see the world," he says. "I've been around the world three times since January and I think it's wonderful."

He says he and Deirdre - formerly Deirdre O'Hara - and their three children Saoirse (24), Fergus (22) and Liam (21) are used to the nomadic lifestyle.

"We're all used to it as a family. When they were young we brought them with us on tour," he adds.

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A few years back the family moved back to Lurgan to live, at least for part of the year, but Barry admits that phase is coming to a close as his children begin to scatter.

"We brought the children so that they would have some English language education - they were born in France and they are bilingual.

"We wanted them to know their roots and their family. Now two of them are about to go back to live in Paris and Liam is down in Dublin. It was great to be back home a little bit but we are now more back towards Paris."

But they have never been out of touch with their roots, despite the years living in the French capital.

Barry explains: "We visited every year, two or three times a year, and we've seen how things have changed and how amazing Belfast has become. It has become a vibrant city with a lot of opportunities, and it's much more fun and liberal than it was before."

Although he does express some disillusionment with the current state of politics here, adding: "I think that there is a loss of direction in the political class, with a couple of exceptions.

"I think that their constituents could vote them out of office and elect more constructive people. If they were working for a big company they would have been sacked years ago."

It is very much in line with his forward-looking ethos that he and his fellow musicians put together Camerata Ireland, the orchestra that performs in the closing gala of the Clandeboye Festival on August 24, as a thank you to the politicians and ordinary people who made a leap of faith in bringing the Good Friday Agreement to fulfilment.

"I created Camerata as a response to the Good Friday Agreement. I met so many musicians from the south of Ireland and I am from Belfast and I thought we have so much more in common than we sometimes think we have," he says.

"After the Good Friday Agreement, when people north and south of the border voted overwhelmingly for it, I thought we musicians should make a gesture, so we played a couple of gala concerts to thank the politicians for doing what they did and to thank us citizens for having the courage to give it a go."

The idea proved an inspiration beyond the shores of Ireland, particularly in America: "They loved the idea of an all-Ireland orchestra that heavily concentrated on young people. I wanted to give them as many opportunities as possible.

"People like Queen's (University) were very encouraging to me when I was a young player and I wanted to play my part in giving (these young people) a chance."

As a youngster, Barry went to Botanic Primary School, then to Methodist College Belfast. While his parents weren't musicians, they loved music and Barry began playing at the age of three, learning clarinet, piano, cello and organ.

"When I was a kid I wanted to be a long distance truck driver - so in a sense I got my wish because I travel a lot," he says.

"But I can't imagine myself having done anything else.

"I toyed with science for a while, with a view to becoming a doctor. And I was good at maths - they say that mathematicians and musicians have similar brains, although I can't add two and two together now!

"They had a fantastic music department in Methody - and probably still do - and that was great.

"I was inspired by all sorts of people - my English teacher, and we had a great French teacher, so I was lucky.

"I started playing in public around the age of 10 or 11. Queen's University Belfast very helpfully let me play lunchtime recitals in the Harty Room whenever I wanted, so I was able to get a lot of experience thanks to them. But I really started touring when I was in my 20s."

He credits pianist Felicitas LeWinter with inspiring him to focus on the piano.

"I met this woman who was the pupil of a pupil of Liszt, who was visiting her sister in Belfast, and she was a Jewish refugee from Austria and a fantastic pianist, and she inspired me to play the piano. That was Felicitas LeWinter," he says.

After school Barry moved to London to study at the Royal College of Music.

"When I left, I started studying with Maria Curcio, who had been a pupil of Schnabel, a gifted Austrian pianist," he says.

"So there I had two very important connections with tradition, one to Liszt and one through Schnabel to the Russian school. As these old, great figures pass on, we are losing these kind of traditions, which is a shame."

After this, he says, he embarked on his Spanish career, winning second prize in the 1980 Paloma O'Shea Santander International Piano Competition in Spain, and began playing more widely in Europe, before moving to Paris to study with a Russian teacher.

But the spur that drove his career into the stratosphere was two-fold - first winning the Bronze Medal at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Texas in 1985 and then winning the gold medal at the age of 26 in the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1986, the first non-Russian pianist to do so since Van Cliburn in 1958.

The latter competition has been described as the equivalent of the Olympics for concert pianists.

Barry says he has never suffered from stage fright, even in the early days.

"You have to be a little bit nervous - that is very important to make everything come alive - but I've never been frightened at all. Just at horror movies," he says.

The Clandeboye Festival had its roots in a conversation years ago with Lady Dufferin about the cultural aspects that could be offered by the beautiful Clandeboye Estate outside Bangor, Co Down.

"We have wonderful teachers in our schools but we don't have any conservatoires north and south, and I thought we should try and get together to make a conservatoire. I thought I'd try making a summer school and see how it worked, so we created a place in Clandeboye where we could put young musicians in touch with great artists.

"We thought we would have a local weekend festival to see how people reacted," Barry says.

"Now it's in its 18th year and it's a 10-day festival. It's really the spiritual home of Camerata, where they play, usually at the closing concerts.

"It's also been welcoming these internationally renowned musicians and lots of them have been coming every year since. It's about the young people, it's about Camerata and it's about promoting great music as well."

With each year, the festival is reinvented, constantly branching out in new directions.

For example, this year it is not just about classical music - on the Thursday (August 22) Barry will perform with Celtic Orbit, his group that plays traditional music from Ireland, Scotland and Brittany.

And this Friday, music and fashion will merge with an evening concert and fashion show, featuring young designers and international guest designers accompanied by festival musicians, alongside an exhibition of costume design and art in the Ava Gallery within the Clandeboye Estate grounds.

"We'll have some great music and it's a very intimate setting at Clandeboye," Barry says.

"It's a very special place. People are very faithful to it and they come every year."

This year the festival has been extended so that the academy aspect of it begins slightly earlier, with students having classes and rehearsals during the first week before a concentrated programme of concerts over the first weekend.

"This year I asked (Irish pianist) Finghin Collins to create the programming for the first weekend. I would like to make it into a mini festival within a festival in the future," Barry explains. "In previous years, we've had themes such as France, Russia, Vienna. This year's theme is A Sense of Place and Landscape.

"We're such a multinational festival, with performers from America, Chile, Japan, France and England and audience members coming from Germany, France and Spain.

"I thought we are all so different and yet we are all supporting young people and great art - it's a kind of kaleidoscopic snapshot, celebrating the diversity that we have at the festival.

"This year, for the first time, we're having a showcase of the young musicians on the Tuesday night and we're asking a few to stay on on Wednesday to play a concert together. We asked them to propose pieces of music and that's what they did.

"When Camerata plays, it will be interesting - Finghin will play at the concert and I'll conduct Camerata, and then I will play the concert and he'll conduct Camerata, performing Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No 5."

What stands out about the Clandeboye Festival is that it is a break from the normal routine for the musicians as well as the audience.

"It's a great atmosphere. It's not like concerto touring, in a sense," Barry says.

"Everyone mingles together and you can chat - the young people, the musicians, the audience. Everyone is there together and that's what festivals should be like," he says.

The Clandeboye Festival runs from August 16 to 24 at Clandeboye Estate near Bangor. Further details are available at www.goh.co.uk/clandeboye-festival

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