IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Pianist Douglas inspired by a gospel-singing cop

Some musicians, like Mozart, have an overbearing parent pushing them. Perhaps only one, Northern Irish piano virtuoso Barry Douglas, would credit a gospel-singing policeman from the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
/ Source: Reuters

Some musicians, like Mozart, have an overbearing parent pushing them. Perhaps only one, Northern Irish piano virtuoso Barry Douglas, would credit a gospel-singing policeman from the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

It happened after Douglas, 50, a Belfast native who spent a fair amount of his teenage years being beaten up by Catholics because his father was Protestant, and by Protestants because his mother was Catholic, met an RUC policeman who sang in a church choir and helped Douglas identify his latest assailants.

"He was Protestant and he said one thing which made a huge impression on me. He said all of the fighting was a complete waste of time. Why don't people realize that we have more in common on this island than not? Why can't we just get together and have a united Ireland?"

That looked like an Emerald City pipedream at the height of the Protestant-Catholic bombings, shootings and violence of the 1970s and 1980s "Troubles" in the British-ruled province.

But a year after the 1998 Good Friday accord started Northern Ireland on the path to a reasonably stable peace, Douglas, by then established in the top ranks of pianists after winning the prestigious Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow in 1986, got a chance to practice what the policeman preached.

In 1999 he founded Camerata Ireland, an Irish-based, not-for-profit organization which brings together young Irish musicians from Northern Ireland and the southern republic for training, performing and an ambitious touring program.

The orchestra has performed in Europe, South America and China and will travel to the United States for a fourth tour and a Carnegie Hall debut this month following a concert on Thursday (March 3) at St. Cecilia's College in Derry/Londonderry.

"It was post the ceasefire and people saw and smelled that something was happening, so it came at the right time," Douglas, in an interview, said about the orchestra's early days. "It kind of took on a life of its own and it gained that interest which it might not have had I done it 10 years later."

If anything, Douglas thinks there should be more such pan-island organizations, particularly at a time when recession is forcing many young Irish to seek their fortunes elsewhere.

"What I've discovered is that there's a whole host of talent, but it's like a brain drain that leaves the island and most of it never comes back," he said.

"So I wanted to show the talent that's coming out of Ireland, north and south, and give them a home. They can still have jobs or be freelance or have a contract with an orchestra but Camerata Ireland is their home, to be with their buddies.

"The result is incredible. The sound of the orchestra, the sound of the concerts, is unique, which I think comes from the fact people really feel at home among their friends and family."

Here's what else he had to say about why, despite the violence, Belfast, wasn't the worst place in the world to be an aspiring musician, and what he's doing with his solo career.

Q: When it comes to getting a grounding in classical music, is it safe to assume Belfast is not Vienna?

A: "I knew from the beginning I wanted to be a musician. I heard music in school when I was 3 1/2 and I started to learn the piano. We didn't have a piano but our neighbors were about to throw one out and gave it to us. I played by ear for a long time, I didn't have a teacher, but my parents found a local composer who taught piano...He saw the whole picture, so he got me interested in other instruments. I learned the clarinet and then my school needed a cellist so I learned the cello, then they needed an organist so I learned the organ, they needed a timpani player so I learned the timpani. I became a pianist when I was 16 which is very late...but I met this incredible woman Felicitas Le Winter who'd been a pupil of (Franz) Liszt and I had a summer of lessons with her...and that was the point where I thought I'm really falling in love with the piano. .. I worked hard and did it the way she taught me -- she was visiting her sister in Belfast, they had been Jewish refugees from Vienna."

Q: Okay, Vienna connection after all, but what about live performances? Many of those around in Belfast?

A: "As for culture, there was very little culture. I went to my first orchestral concert when I was about 12, with (the late) pianist Leonard Pennario. There was nobody there at all, maybe 20 in the Ulster Hall. ...And my first operatic experience was (Verdi's) 'Rigoletto' where there were four bomb scares during the performance and everyone filed out into the streets. By the time it got to the fourth bomb scare the singer playing the Duke of Mantua said, 'Enough, I'm going back to the hotel to get drunk.' I didn't see the end until years later."

Q: On top of everything else, you've got your own career, in which you seem to be pushing the envelope by playing and conducting the two Brahms piano concertos from the piano bench. How does that work, and why do it?

A: "It is totally rash -- that's what I need Red Bull for. ...It can only work if you talk to the principals in the orchestra and tell them their tasks... If everybody is a good collaborator and team player it works, because often I'm playing so many notes I can't direct. (And why?) Because I always want the tuttis done my way. I've worked with marvelous conductors on both pieces and I can't complain at all...but once you've let them loose on the podium you don't know what's going to happen."