On 13 December 2007, a very special orchestra will be visiting London with their charismatic founder and conductor. Camerata Ireland will present a concert at Cadogan Hall under Barry Douglas, the acclaimed pianist and conductor who brought the team of all-Irish musicians together for the first time in 1998. Since then they haven't looked back, performing challenging programmes all over the world, and they've just released a recording of the complete Beethoven piano concerti. I chatted to Douglas about his plans for the orchestra, the state of the Arts in Ireland, and his programme for the orchestra's London concert.
Douglas explains that his initial motivation for creating the orchestra was threefold. 'I wanted to get the best Irish talent together, particularly new talent, and get together and make music. So much Irish talent leaves the country; although there are music schools, there's not much in the way of conservatories, and people tend to go to London or Scotland or Manchester. So the fact that it's an all-Ireland enterprise, bringing people together from the North and South, is very important.
'Second, I really did want to create a good orchestra which can create a high standard of performance. And finally, I wanted it to be lots of fun. Although high quality is obviously the most important thing, I didn't want this to seem like a job to people. It was important that it be an interesting and creative experience for everyone involved.'
Founded in the aftermath of the Good Friday agreement, Camerata Ireland was an important expression of unification between people from the Republic of Ireland and the North. 'It may sound like a cliché, but Music and the Arts - artistic expression - are in the unique position to bring people together and move forward in a less divided way', says Douglas. 'My inspiration for this was seeing a Saturday morning youth orchestra in Belfast, where children from either side of the divide could join. I thought, "Why can't we do that in real life?" Although things are a hell of a lot better than they used to be, there's still an underlying mistrust between a lot of people. Music can bridge the gaps in society.'
Camerata Ireland benefits from the remarkable joint patronage of the English Queen Elizabeth II and the Irish President McAleese, a sign that the orchestra's message goes far beyond making music. 'It would have been an incredible honour to have either of them singly, but to have them both is a double honour for us. What it showed to me is something I never doubted: that the Queen is passionate about making a difference in Ireland.'
As one of the world's great pianists - in 1986 he became one of only three Westerners to win the Tchaikovsky Gold Medal in Moscow outright - Barry Douglas always conducts one work from the keyboard in his Camerata Ireland concerts. He feels that the concertante format is a metaphor for the team spirit between the orchestra and himself. 'I play in nearly every concert, though occasionally we've had guest soloists. The thing is, we know each other so well that it's like a family; it's very natural. The great thing about directing from the keyboard is that it's more like chamber music. Without a conductor, the musicians have to take their cues from each other.'
Douglas also explains that the make-up of the orchestra's personnel is quite diverse. 'A majority of perhaps sixty or seventy percent of the players are in their late twenties or thirties. But this is a young orchestra rather than a youth orchestra. There are a number of a more established musicians in it, too, which is mutually beneficial for the less experienced players.'
Douglas bemoans the mass exodus of talented musicians from Ireland at a relatively early age, due to the lack of quality training (and subsequent jobs) available. 'They have to leave because freelance work is much richer elsewhere, for instance in London. It's not too bad in Dublin, but apart from teaching and one-off festivals there's not much on offer. What's interesting is that there are now a number of new ensembles arising since we started Camerata Ireland - two string quartets, a piano trio, lots of chamber music. It's so nice that the trio called themselves the Young Camerata Ireland Trio. These musicians are very much connected to us still and continue to play with us.
'People have tried to create a really good conservatory, notably John O'Conor. But more political will is needed and I don't see it happening yet, in spite of the amazing boom in the economy over here. If I could get the political will together, I would love to do it. At the moment, though, I do have my summer school at Clandeboye, which provides chances for youngsters to make music. It's a spring board for further activity - so much talent is emerging.'
Douglas also realises that these problems are part of a wider issue. 'Ireland has more of a tradition with the theatre; native traditional music is also strong, though I'd agree that more funding should be given to that, too. But there's no tradition in the country for classical music. Yet there should be: the talent is there, and it's crazy we don't have an opera house, for example. The Arts Council is doing more now, however, to help out, which is encouraging for what might happen in the future.'
The conversation turns back to Douglas' current activities with Camerata Ireland, and I ask him why he chose the Beethoven concerti for their first recording. 'Well I thought about it and realised that it might look arrogant for a new orchestra to take on such popular and well-recorded pieces, especially with the record industry having taken a downturn', he admits. 'But we do a really good job of them, so I thought "don't be afraid" and it worked out well. For one thing, it represents what we've been doing for years. And we really have tried to create a new, intimate sound. The producer really understood the chamber sound we wanted. And it has the feeling of a live performance because we did the recording in quite long takes.'
Douglas also explains his repertoire choices for his concert with Camerata Ireland at Cadogan Hall on 13 December 2007. 'We've done lots of Sibelius' string music in the past, because the strings have a particularly expressive sound, so I wanted to bring his piece Rakastava to London. We haven't done much Schubert before, but it suits our light sound and I hope to do more in the future, so I'm looking forward to doing the Third Symphony. And although people like to put down Beethoven's Triple Concerto nowadays, I think it's a phenomenally beautiful piece of music - a really great piece.'
That the orchestra has already been going nearly ten years is a sign that it's no flash in the pan. As Douglas says, 'We have plans to do more. One of the things that I want to address is that although we've done lots of international tours, we haven't played much in Ireland. However, we've been given the green light to move into a Palladian mansion in Co. Kildare called Castletown House. It means we have a home and we'll be giving a series of concerts there. We're also developing more of a season at the National Concert Hall in Dublin, as well as continuing an annual European tour to places like London and Paris, with Madrid added next year. So there's all of that, plus of course the festival in August. It's really taking off!'
Barry Douglas' career as a pianist and conductor also continues to blossom in all kinds of directions. 'It's a case of expanding and extending, really. With the orchestra and festivals, I want to bring other people on board and be able to do more. I have a number of conducting engagements with the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra now that we have a relationship, and we're playing in the Mostly Mozart Festival at the Barbican next year. But the main thing is that I'm still doing lots of concerts as a piano soloist. Tomorrow I'm off to play the world premiere of Penderecki's new piano concerto in Cincinnati!
'It's mainly more of the same', he continues. I run the International Piano Festival in Manchester, which comes up next in 2009, which will involve younger pianists. Anything I can do to cook up opportunities and ideas for helping the young, whether Irish or not, is a good thing.' It's clear where his priorities lie: 'I hope that all the festivals I've created and the Camerata Ireland will be successful enough to outlive me.'
Barry Douglas conducts Camerata Ireland on 13 December at Cadogan Hall, with further concerts around Europe in December and in America in March. More information can be found on the Camerata Ireland and Cadogan Hall websites.
Read other recent interviews with singers such as Ian Bostridge, Petra Lang, Rebecca Evans, Ann Murray, Claire Rutter, John Hudson, Susan Graham, Sally Burgess, Rosalind Plowright and Marcello Giordani here.