Pianist Barry Douglas reflects on Van Cliburn, Russian competitions

Barry Douglas

• 7:30 p.m. Tuesday

• Bass Hall, Fort Worth

• $20-$90

• 817-212-4280; www.cliburn.org

Posted 7:10am on Monday, May. 12, 2014

Though he won bronze, not gold, Irish pianist Barry Douglas has had one of the most distinguished and varied careers of any Cliburn Competition winner.

A musical polymath who played clarinet, cello and organ as well as piano while growing up in Belfast, he only got serious about the piano in his teens. Just a few years later, he was a heavyweight contender at the 1985 Cliburn.

Things really took off for him the next year, when he became only the second non-Russian after Van Cliburn to win the gold at the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow (to win outright, that is; two Englishmen had shared the top prize with Russians).

Since then, Douglas has remained in demand as a concert pianist and has expanded into conducting in a big way, as founder and director of Camerata Ireland. His latest project is a huge undertaking: complete recordings of the solo piano works by Brahms and Schubert, on the Chandos label. Two Brahms discs have appeared so far, and the first Schubert volume was released in March.

Douglas returns to Fort Worth on Tuesday for the final concert of this season’s Cliburn at the Bass. We chatted with him by phone from a tour stop in San Diego last week. (The conversation was edited for length.)

Here in Fort Worth, we know so well the story of Van Cliburn’s Tchaikovsky Competition win in 1958. But you also went and faced down the mighty Russian pianists during the Cold War era. What was that like for you?

Van Cliburn’s win was, of course, historically momentous and politically momentous, as well. What a great artist. How much we all miss him. I’m very excited to be coming back to Fort Worth but sad that Van is not around anymore. I was lucky to get to see him about nine months before he passed away. We had dinner together and we went over old times, including Russia.

My experience would have been different to his. Certainly, it was still the Soviet Union then [in 1986], and it was completely different to what Russia has become now. It was a time when the piano department at the Moscow Conservatory was a completely different animal — very intense and with very strong ethos of what piano playing and music was about. It was pure Russian and that was a delight.

Why, exactly?

Because it was a very pure way of looking at what the piano should sound like, and what music should sound like on the piano. That was a very intense kind of music making.

Russians are, of course, still very intense musicians — and people. But with the opening up of the country and the disappearance of the Soviet Union, it’s become much more open to the possibilities of different influences. And that’s good and bad. But it’s still quite magical in many ways.

You were a juror at the 2011 Tchaikovsky Competition. Do people still respond to you there? How was that experience?

I’m normally shy about being on juries, but Valery Gergiev [Russia’s leading conductor and chair of the competition] called and said he wanted to put together something new. He was asking some very great musicians to be on the panel. I was flattered and wanted to be a part of that, and it was a great experience.

It was great that Van was able to come. We spent many hours together, and the people went crazy over him, of course. They loved him. It was just exactly the same.

For me, it’s always fantastic when I go there. I have hundreds of friends. The audiences are amazing, and every time I go back there are long lines. I brought my own orchestra there for the first time last June, and we had 50 or 60 people baking cakes and cookies for the players. We all fell in love with each other all over again.

It’s really quite a different place to most places on the planet. I’m very fortunate to be a part of that and to have a place in their hearts. They certainly have a place in mine.

You’re giving us Schubert and Brahms at your Bass Hall recital. You’ve been spending a lot of time with those two gentlemen lately.

And I’m going to be doing it for another 10 years, I think [laughing]. But you know, it’s a voyage of discovery, a celebration for me.

Why did you choose these two composers for your recording marathon?

They put me on the spot, the record company. They wanted to do something significant, and they asked would I consider doing cycles. I said Brahms, but I wasn’t sure about the second one. It became almost like a psychologist sitting me down and doing word association.

When they suggested Schubert, I said I’m actually enjoying Schubert and feeling strong about him in a new way, because I always thought Schubert wasn’t my forte. I’m very happy with the first disc. It’s a huge honor to be asked to do it, and I’m loving every second of it.

Talk about Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy, since you’re playing that here and it’s on your new CD.

I love that someone once said only the devil can play that piece. And it is incredibly difficult, but it’s a fabulous piece. In just one movement he manages to make something incredibly complex and passionate and multilayered and dramatic, with very little material.

For me, it’s a joy on many fronts. It’s an amazing kind of arc in a short span of time — an arc that is very satisfying. … It’s a surreal burst of color. And I love that.

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