Barry Douglas in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

The thirty-ninth interview in my Classical Conversations Series features Irish concert pianist Barry Douglas. We met for a chat in London recently, where he talked about his life and career.

Barry Douglas has established a major international career since winning the Gold Medal at the 1986 Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition, Moscow. As Artistic Director of Camerata Ireland and the Clandeboye Festival, he continues to celebrate his Irish heritage whilst also maintaining a busy international touring schedule.

Barry has recently embarked on a monumental recording project with Chandos Records – to record the complete works for solo piano of Brahms within five years. Having developed a wealth of musical experience in his 35-year career, Barry now feels the time is right to undertake this colossal project. The first disc of works by Brahms was released to critical acclaim in March 2012. The interesting programming of each disc, which has already garnered much critical praise, presents each album as a stand-alone recital, providing a varied and engaging listening experience. March 2014 will also see the release of his first recording of Schubert solo piano works.

Barry founded Camerata Ireland in 1999 to celebrate and nurture the cream of young Irish talent. The ensemble is made up of musicians from both Northern and the Republic of Ireland and has acquired a reputation for excellence. Camerata Ireland tours regularly throughout Europe, North and South America, and China. In addition to its busy schedule of concerts, the orchestra will perform a new cantata commissioned by The Honourable The Irish Society, “At Sixes and Sevens”, alongside the London Symphony Orchestra to celebrate Derry-Londonderry becoming City of Culture 2013. Barry Douglas is joint Artistic Director of this project.

Highlights of this season include returns to the London Symphony Orchestra, RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, Ulster Orchestra, Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Tonkünstler Orchestra both in Vienna and on tour in the UK, and the Macau Orchestra.  He has previously given concerts with the London Symphony, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Russian National, Cincinnati Symphony, Singapore Symphony, Seattle Symphony, Hallé, Berlin Radio Symphony, Melbourne Symphony, Czech National Symphony, Atlanta Symphony, Brussels Philharmonic, Shanghai Symphony, Baltimore Symphony, Hong Kong Philharmonic, Houston Symphony, and Helsinki Philharmonic orchestras, among others. Barry regularly plays in recital throughout the world, with upcoming performances in Switzerland, France, Mexico, the Netherlands, Czech Republic, the USA, and the UK, including a series of lunchtime recitals at LSO St Luke’s. He also performed the Penderecki Sextet at the 2013 Krzysztof Penderecki Festival in honour of the composer’s 80th birthday.

Barry’s reputation as a play/conductor has grown since forming Camerata Ireland, this season seeing him return to direct the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. In recent seasons, he has made successful debuts with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra, Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Indianapolis Symphony, Vancouver Symphony, Chamber Orchestra of the Romanian National Radio Orchestra at the Enescu Festival, Bangkok Symphony, I Pommerigi di Milano and Moscow Philharmonic orchestras.

Barry Douglas received the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2002 New Year’s Honours List for services to music.

But she was marvelous and she inspired me to be a pianist. I’ll be forever grateful to her. I also had a wonderful teacher at the Royal College of Music, John Barstow. And then had lessons, a lot of lessons with Maria Curcio privately in London. And she was a huge inspiration as well. She’d been a pupil of Schnabel, and so a whole mileage of tradition and an integrity and a sincerity about music making, about technique, about literature.

Melanie: I was going to ask, how did you develop your technique? Were you one of those pianists that practiced a lot of scales and studies or were you on learning the techniques within each work, do you think?

Barry: I did a bit of both because sometimes when I was very young, I tackled pieces that were really beyond me, but then that was good because Horowitz once said that he learned all his technique from playing music. So, I thought, I think the important thing is that you have to see the reason for a particular technical thing is it has a musical foundation and it’s not something in isolation. Yes, of course scales and arpeggios and exercises are very important, but they should be played in a musical way. Otherwise, if you divorce the technique from the musical expression, then somehow it’s very difficult to pair it up again. So, you should always make music even with an exercise, even with a scale. I remember when I was trying to make money when I was an 18-year-old in London, and I taught these kids the piano, and there was this one little girl who played the most beautiful C major scales. Her hand was incredible and it was just perfect. It was making music, and I used to get her to play it over and over again [Laughter] C major scale.

Melanie: Interesting. So, you won the Tchaikovsky. It must have had a tremendous impact on your career. How did it change?

Barry: Well, overnight, of course, it was a huge thing for me. Everything opened, you know, record contracts, agencies, concerts, festivals, orchestras, conductors, because in those days it was – I mean, Valery Gergiev has transformed the competition. The last edition was 2011. So it is really very interesting, but in those days just before the fall of the Soviet Union, it had a kind of mystery to it. I think everybody is kind of fascinated by what the Russians were doing behind the iron curtain. And of course it was a hugely important Piano School in the Moscow Conservatory, with great teachers and of course we knew these wonderful, and we love these Russian pianists. And so, for me, it was actually incredible to manage to win this, and I’m eternally grateful to my friends in Russia.

Melanie: Do you believe competition is still the best way of establishing a career for young pianists today or do you think we’ve got so many of them that they’ve become less important?

Barry: I think there are too many and they are less important. But that doesn’t mean that a young musician can’t come to a competition with the right frame of mind, with the right motivation. It’s not about running around the world and entering different competitions just for the sake of it. It’s about playing well, making music, and if some day you win, that’s great. If you don’t, it doesn’t really mean too much. It means, you know, you didn’t win on that particular day, but another day you might win. So, it’s not about the winning, Yes, it is about the winning. Well, I mean, you have to enter competitions and I really do want to win, because it is a competition. But, at the same time, I think you must have prepared yourself over the years so that music is the most important thing. I used to hear people talk about how they would change the technique or how they play the piece to suit the jury. I don’t know how they knew what the jury was going to like or not like, but that’s really the wrong way to do it. You have to love the music. You have to love the piano, and that should come first.

Melanie: Which composers do you love to play?

Barry: I don’t have any favourites, though I’ve been playing a lot of Brahms and Schubert at the moment.

Melanie: [Laughter] That was my next question, yes, because you’ve embarked on this 5 year project to record all of Brahms solo piano music. That’s incredible. What was the inspiration behind that? What’s so special about his music for you?

Barry: Well, I’ve always played Brahms. I’ve known most of his music for a very long time. Schubert a little bit less, but I’m playing more and more Schubert now. Brahms seemed the logical choice when Chandos asked me to do a series of a complete thing. I said, “Well, Brahms I think is-” and Beethoven, of course, would be also, but maybe that’s not for now for me, but Brahms has been a great voyage of discovery because I’ve learned pieces that I haven’t played before, and that’s interesting, but we’ve got another year and a half to go and then Brahms will be done and after that the Schubert. We’ve released one Schubert record. We’re going to do a second the next year and then we’ll get into a series.

Melanie: I was going to say, are you going to do a complete Schubert Cycle? What is the music-?

Barry: Yes, yes. I don’t know if it’s going to be complete, complete, complete. But it’s going to be certainly all the main, important works and some of the small pieces as well. But I’m not sure if I’m going to get every last thing wiped up.

Melanie: Yes. Quite a difference between Brahms and Schubert. Different completely styles.

Barry: Absolutely. And in fact with the Brahms, I wanted to make each disc a kind of piano recital. So, you know, you would come home from work tired, have a glass of wine or coffee, and listen to a recital. So, you don’t have to buy the whole thing. You can buy the whole thing if you want. I’m sure the guys at Chandos would be very happy and so would I. But I want each disc to be kind of self-contained, too, and have a little bit from the beginning, middle, and end of his life. So you can see the contrast and the different techniques and how he developed just in one disc. But the Schubert I’m going to do quite seriously with the sonatas, and then I’m also going to include in most of the discs the Liszt transcriptions of his songs just to have a little kind of different flavour and how another great composer commented and admired Schubert’s work.

Melanie: You set up Camerata Ireland in 1999 and you direct and conduct this orchestra. What made you go into that, into conducting? Because that’s quite a departure.

Barry: Well I was conducting choirs and orchestras in my teens so it was always kind of there. The whole thing with Camerata was not really to start conducting. It was a moment in history of the island, which was transformative. We had peace. We had parliament and there were a lot of things about to happen. I think we artists should make a contribution to that, too. Excuse me. [Coughs] So, I wanted – I guess the mission of the orchestra is really a free flow, one is to show the international audience that Ireland can do some beautiful orchestra and play beautifully and Camerata has being touring ever since 1999, all over the world. Another one was to build in the peace process and make those connections North and South and say, well, actually – we get on with people and here’s the positive side of Ireland, what it has to offer. And also then to create a kind of a nurturing place for young musicians in the first few steps of their careers. It’s not a youth orchestra, but it has a strong element of young people in it. Maybe from the ages of 23 to 35, something like that, which is about maybe 50-60% of the orchestra. But I think it’s very important that they should play with their older colleagues and their established colleagues should be able to play with the younger people. I think it’s a very nice mix. And so, I’ve directed most of the concerts, but we do have guest artists. We’ve had Sarah Chang to come and direct. The orchestra is 15 years old and is doing very well, and we’ve made records and we have our own festival. So, it’s very exciting.

Melanie: You’re Artistic Director of a couple of festivals in Ireland. Tell us of your involvement in most festivals and how they’ve progressed over the years.

Barry: Being an all-island orchestra, all-Ireland orchestra, we have kind of two of everything. We have two offices. We have two companies. We have two concert series. We have two education hubs, one in Derry, one in Cork. We had two festivals. We had Clandeboye in the North near Belfast and we had Castletown in Kildare near Dublin in the South. The Castletown thing was sort of magnificent Stately Home, but we decided that after maybe five or six festivals, that we would move on. I think we’re going to find another festival somewhere else. The building is not, it is difficult for chamber orchestras because a lot of it is very well protected because anything could happen to it. For instance, bringing the piano in, you can’t bring the piano up the stairs, because these are steps which are – there’s no support. And so you can see a standard concert grand going up the stairs, and you’d think, “My goodness! What’s going to happen to the stairs?” And so we have to bring them by crane. So, it turned out to be quite costly, but certainly it’s a venue for any concert. And they have their own series of concerts, which they do on the ground floor, because the big concerts are on the first floor. Anyway, so to cut a long story short, we’ll be finding another festival in the South of Ireland. But we have Clandeboye, and Clandeboye is 12 years old this year. We’ve had 160 young musicians go through. We invite international guest artists and they work with the young ones. They play chamber music, give masterclasses, and the Camerata plays. We have theatre. We have cooking master classes. We have a fashion show. So, it’s all of our young people, young designers, young chefs, young actors, young poets. And so it’s all about creating a forum for people to be able to try things like that.

Melanie: So, what are your plans for the future? Concerts? Recordings?

Barry: The recordings are set obviously with the Brahms and Schubert. I might do the two Brahms concertos also. As regards to concerts and continuing my travels around the world, this year I’m going to some new places or places I haven’t been for a while, like Israel. It was my first time in Mexico a couple of years ago and we went with Camerata last year. I went again this year. So, there’s some countries where I’ve been playing a lot in recently. Of course around Europe, I was at the Proms this year. There are new pieces being written for me. Kevin Volans who wrote a concerto for me at the Proms a couple of years ago, is writing another piece for the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group that has piano, a piano solo. So, working with composers is very important, too. What else? The festival, I went to grow the festival because I think it’s very important to reach as many young people as possible. It’s the same as the other festival and I really want to get education in Ireland up and running where kids and schools can really experience the greatest of music and understand and be, in a sense, energized and inspired to probe further and learn more.

Melanie: That’s so important.

Barry: It’s a tough time for education in Ireland and in many countries. With cutbacks and everything, music always seems to be the first one to suffer. So I’m determined to say, “Well we have to really concentrate. This is a priority.”

Melanie: Absolutely. So, what does playing the piano mean to you?

Barry: Well, it’s, you know, it’s all enveloping. I bought a new Steinway grand or concert grand recently and I’m so – I’m finding new sounds. I find most artists who are serious will say ‘I’m learning all the time’. It is really like that! You do learn all the time, and you learn different ways of playing. You discover things about pieces that you’ve known all your life. I think that’s fascinating. It’s exciting. So, it is my life, but it’s part of my life, too. Because I have my own life. My life away from the piano, but the piano – I feel very fortunate. It’s a great instrument, great music.

Melanie: Thanks so much for joining me today.

Barry: Thank you.


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.


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