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Barry Douglas celebrates Ulster Orchestra birthday by playing Tchaikovsky

Thirty years after winning the world's most prestigious piano competition, Barry Douglas returns to his roots and celebrate with the Ulster Orchestra. Jenny Lee chats to the international pianist

Barry Douglas will perform all three of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concertos with the Ulster Orchestra in this, its 50th season
Barry Douglas will perform all three of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concertos with the Ulster Orchestra in this, its 50th season Barry Douglas will perform all three of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concertos with the Ulster Orchestra in this, its 50th season

THERE'LL be a symphonic celebration in Belfast tomorrow as the Ulster Orchestra holds a special 50th birthday concert, featuring some of classical music's best-loved openers from composers Rossini, Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky.

Joining in the celebration is leading Belfast pianist Barry Douglas, who's no stranger to the orchestra, having first performed with it in 1980 as a 17-year-old.

"I played Beethoven No 1, with Jack Thompson as conductor, during a summer concert," he recalls.

Douglas went on to establish an international career after winning the Gold Medal at the 1986 Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow – the youngest ever winner and the first non-Russian pianist to win since Van Cliburn in 1958. His memories of 30 years ago are both "frightening and wonderful".

"Then it was still the Soviet Union, so a very different place," he recalls. "But the incredible vibrancy, passion and enthusiasm from the Muscovite audiences was quite overwhelming. They still have that."

At tomorrow's Ulster Orchestra concert Douglas will be performing the work that first announced him to the rest of the world in that USSR competition – Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No 1. It's a piece he never tires of playing.

"There is no mystery as to why it is so popular. It is so well written and makes such an impressive statement. It's beautiful," says the 56-year-old.

Douglas will perform both of Tchaikovsky's other piano concertos in two further appearances during the Ulster Orchestra's 50th season. So why does he believe the Russian composer's music is still so popular today?

"I think he touches us all with the sincerity of his sentiments. That's what great music does," he says.

When it comes to performing, Douglas tries to honour this sentiment and admits that each recital takes huge emotional and physical effort.

"Every concert takes over your life, from the moment you wake up that morning until you walk off stage – and that's the way it should be. You have to bring the music alive for the audience, so you do your best to try and convey that to them."

The musician, who has homes in Paris and Lurgan, started piano lessons at the age of four. However, he admits he didn't enjoy piano exams and it wasn't until music teacher Felicitas LeWinter inspired him as a late teen that he began to enjoy practice and devote himself to the piano.

"To succeed as a pianist you need to have some passion and a gift but the majority of it is hard work," says Douglas who still practices for four an a half hours a day on his beloved 'Dora Bella' Steinway.

He has also achieved much success as a recording artist and over the past five years has devoted much time to recording the complete works of Brahms – his sixth and final volume has just been released.

"It's sad to finish my exploration of Brahms but it also gives me a great sense of fulfilment as it's been a long, but lovely, journey. I knew most of the music but I learnt some new music and discovered some amazing gems people never played before," says Douglas, who is also doing a similar project with the works of Schubert.

Proud of his Irish heritage, as well as continuing his role as artistic director of Irish chamber group Camerata Ireland, Douglas's other "big project" is the development of Celtic Orbit.

Showcased at the Clandeboye Festival in August, he is further developing the project, which he says will ultimately be "a stage show", collaborating with a poet and dancer, as well as Irish flautist Eimear McGeown, Sottish fiddler Chris Stout and harpist Catriona McKay.

"Celtic Orbit celebrates Celtic civilisation and how on their journey west [the Celts] touched so many people and they were influenced by so many cultures – whether Cornwall, Brittany, Wales, Scotland and then on to the US. It's a fascinating journey and I wanted to put together some homage to those cultures."

While his eldest two children are studying languages and physics, it appears that youngest son Liam (18) has inherited his musical genes.

"He's a great guitarist and he wants to be a rock guitarist, so I'm very excited about that," says Douglas. An interesting collaboration for the future perhaps?

:: Barry Douglas performs Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No 1 during the Ulster Orchestra's 50th Birthday Concert on Friday September 30 at the Ulster Hall, Belfast. Tickets 028 9033 4455 or ulsterorchestra.org.uk