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Talented Belfast pianist says it was Barry Douglas and Sir James Galway who helped put him on musical map

The Belfast man tells Stephanie Bell how flautist James taught him a valuable lesson about stage fright, and why it helps that the 35-year-old is marrying a fellow musician

Michael McHale
Michael McHale
Michael McHale performing at the National Concert Hall in Dublin
Barry Douglas

Such is the spellbinding beauty of pianist Michael McHale's performances that even in the biggest concert halls you can hear a pin drop when he is on stage.

Back on home ground last night for a huge red carpet bash at Titanic Belfast, he had a local celebrity audience mesmerised by a breathtaking score he composed and performed live with the Ulster Youth Orchestra.

Michael's music echoed around the venue as short cinematic film We've Come A Long Way was premiered at what was billed as a special celebration of Northern Ireland's status as a world class tourism destination.

It could easily have been a mirror on his own career as, at only 35, the Belfast man has also come a long way to establish himself as one of Ireland's leading pianists with a busy international career as a solo recitalist, concerto soloist and chamber musician.

Based in London since he was 18, he credits two music legends - Barry Douglas and Sir James Galway - with helping him to turn his passion into a career.

In fact, Michael's revelation about the input both maestros had on his early career is a fascinating insight into the two.

Barry provided the first platform for the young musician to help raise his profile, while Sir James not only introduced him to an international audience, but taught him, by example, how important it is to relax on stage.

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Michael says: "Barry and James both took me under their wings and have been a huge support. For people of that stature to help young musicians starting out the way they did is just amazing and I owe them a lot."

Michael grew up in Belfast, the middle child of three. He has two sisters who also now live close to him in north east London - Helen, a lawyer, and Anne, a master of wine.

His dad Noel is a retired professor in physiology at Queen's University in Belfast and his mum Carmel is a retired primary school teacher.

He grew up listening to classical music which he says his father developed a love for as a student: "My dad was an undergraduate at Queen's in the Sixties when he started to take piano and cello lessons and developed a great love for classical music. There were lots of CDs and books on piano music in our house.

"We didn't have a piano but dad had an electric keyboard and I played that. I was sent to piano lessons at the age of seven and that was dad's excuse to buy a grand piano."

While he loved playing the piano and listening to and playing the classics, he grew up enjoying many genres including pop and jazz.

Michael McHale with fiance Laura Dixon, a violinist with the London Symphony Orchestra
Michael McHale with fiance Laura Dixon, a violinist with the London Symphony Orchestra

Even at such a young age, Michael realised that playing the piano was something special for him. "I took to it immediately," he recalls. "It was kind of strange as it made sense for me from the beginning. It is hard to explain but I spent a few weeks learning the basics and then I started forging ahead teaching myself and I was just fascinated from the very start.

"I wasn't one of these kids who thought: 'My gosh, I have to do piano practice'. I loved doing it."

A career as a pianist, however, with its many challenges, did seem something of a pipe dream while he was at Methodist College in Belfast. He knew he wanted a career in music and studied for a degree in music at Cambridge University.

After Cambridge he went on to study piano with a two-year post graduate degree at the Royal College of Music in London.

"It is such a competitive industry and a very unusual lifestyle and so I thought I would maybe compose or teach music," he says. "When I went to the Royal College of Music, the only thing I had to do was play the piano, I had no essays to write and I knew then that's what I wanted to do."

It was while he was in his mid-20s and still studying that internationally renowned pianist Douglas recognised Michael's talent and gave him his first big break.

"Barry Douglas had just started the Clandeboye Festivals and invited me to take part and at the event I won its Young Musician of the Year award," says Michael.

"I was still a student when he invited me to do a number of performances with his orchestra, Camerata Ireland, and then he asked me to take part in a live performance of two Mozart pieces for BBC Radio 3 with the Halle Orchestra, and that really raised my profile and gave me exposure at quite a young age.

"He was incredibly supportive and told me that when he was growing up in Belfast he had been exposed to amazing pianists who were travelling through and who helped him.

Sir James Galway
Sir James Galway

"He has always been interested in helping young Irish musicians in general.

"As someone who has been there and done it, he feeds that experience back.

"It is hard to build a career as a pianist and his support and advice were invaluable."

Another big influence who also recognised Michael's talent is the legendary flautist Sir James, who took the young pianist to venues around the world that previously he could only have dreamt of visiting.

Michael was just 25 when Galway asked him to accompany him on his international tour across the US and Asia. "It was an amazing learning curve to see how relaxed he was on stage," he says. "I remember one concert in Tokyo and it was two hours long and going out live on national TV.

"Sir James started to tell me a silly Irish joke as we were going on stage and he was laughing and I just remember thinking that he hadn't a worry in the world.

"So much work goes into an event like that and it can be quite tense. You can get yourself worked up about it but that really rubbed off on me, how relaxed he was, and I've tried to channel some of that enjoyment into my own performances rather than get totally wrapped up in the music side.

"He also very generously gave me my own solos and it meant that I was performing in concert halls and learning my trade in really great venues."

Michael has gone on to carve out a successful career in his own right, winning many top awards and performing worldwide.

He launched his debut solo album, The Irish Piano, in 2012 and it was selected as CD of the Week by the critic Norman Lebrecht.

More recent solo releases include Schubert: Four Impromptus on Ergodos, Miniatures and Modulations on Grand Piano, and a first orchestral album, Irish Piano Concertos featuring works by John Field and Philip Hammond with the RTE National Symphony Orchestra and conductor Courtney Lewis.

He says: "My career has built up gradually and a couple of years ago I was lucky enough to get the Arts Council of Northern Ireland Major Individual Award.

"I've really enjoyed every step of the way. I love the variety and the different types of work. I do a lot of solo concerts but I love working with orchestras and with small groups of maybe just three or four musicians in smaller venues.

"I love that variety and also playing music written by contemporary composers as well as the great composers of the past."

It makes for a busy life of travel and he is fortunate that his fiancee Laura Dixon (34) also enjoys a career in music as a violinist with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Michael proposed on a holiday in Scilly last year and the couple are due to marry in London in August.

"The fact that both of us have an unusual lifestyle helps make it work," he says.

"This week Laura is playing in a different major city in Europe every day and I am in Belfast on Thursday and so we will see each other on Friday.

"We have to be really clever with our diaries and our schedules and sometimes we can make it work that we are both in the same place at the same time.

"We do try to make sure we see enough of each other.
I'm also lucky that my sisters live close to me in London. My younger sister has two kids and my parents are retired so they visit often. It is great to have that 'home from home' feeling here."

Michael has been enjoying writing some of his own material and was thrilled to be asked to compose the music to go with the new celebratory tourism film.

Last night's Tourism NI red carpet event at Titanic Belfast saw celebrities from the world of sport, TV, film and the arts come together to celebrate how far we have come as a tourist destination.

A poem written for the occasion by Paula Matthews was narrated by some of our best-known actors, including Ian McElhinney, who has appeared in Game Of Thrones and Derry Girls among many other shows, Bronagh Waugh of The Fall and Derry Girls, Saoirse Monica Jackson from Derry Girls and Shaun Blaney, also from Game Of Thrones and Made In Belfast.

The event included a panel Q&A hosted by sports presenter Stephen Watson and broadcaster Claire McCollum and featuring sport legends Sir AP McCoy, Jonathan Rea and Peter Alliss.

Michael, along with the Ulster Youth Orchestra, played the musical score as the film was shown.

"It was massive for me to be part of such a fantastic event showing how far we have come," he says.

"What an amazing and vibrant place Northern Ireland is now and the film captured that with lots of beautiful footage of local culture and society."

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