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Originally published Sunday, February 1, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Irish piano star Barry Douglas can do it all

Barry Douglas arrives at Benaroya Hall on Feb. 5 to solo with the Seattle Symphony in the Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1, one of the huge-scale romantic-era finger-busters with which he has made at least part of his reputation.

Special to The Seattle Times

Concert preview

Barry Douglas, pianist

With Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Gerard Schwarz conducting, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. next Sunday, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $14.50-$102 (206-215-4747 or seattlesymphony.org).

The sound of the piano fills the background when Barry Douglas is called to the phone at his home in Paris — but it isn't the famous Irish pianist himself at the keyboard. It's his 10-year-old son, one of Douglas' three piano-playing children, practicing away while Dad takes the phone into the next room and patiently submits to yet another interview.

Douglas, who arrives at Benaroya Hall on Thursday to solo with the Seattle Symphony, has been doing plenty of practicing on his own: He is booked to play the Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1, one of the huge-scale romantic-era finger-busters with which he has made at least part of his reputation.

It was that fabulous technique, as well as his musicality, that propelled the Belfast-born pianist to stardom in 1986, when he became the first non-Russian since Van Cliburn to win the International Tchaikovsky Competition Gold Medal.

These days, Douglas balances his piano career with an increasingly active conducting career.

The chamber orchestra he founded nearly 10 years ago, Camerata Ireland, keeps him busy in the recording studio and on concert tours. Douglas also has taken on more podium opportunities with orchestras from Lithuania and Belgrade to Bangkok.

It's all enough to make a piano fan nervous. Is Douglas going to give up the keyboard eventually for conducting?

"I love the feel of the piano," he responds, "and I can't imagine giving that up. And even though I am being invited more and more to conduct, and that career is on the increase, I can't imagine myself without the piano. I would sorely miss being a pianist — it is such a core part of my being."

Douglas actually was a conductor before he got serious about the piano (he was only 24 when he won the Tchaikovsky). A musical omnivore, he learned to play several different instruments, including the clarinet, organ, cello and timpani, and conducted school musical events before turning to the piano at 16.

That's certainly a different career trajectory from the usual competition winner, who is already glued to his instrument by the start of grade school and never looks back. But Douglas has always been the kind of musician who values diversity and shuns the standard career path.

He founded Camerata Ireland as a philosophical entity as well as a musical one. Douglas' own family is drawn from both Northern Ireland (his father's homeland) and the Republic of Ireland (home of his mother's family). As a kid growing up in Belfast, he was intensely aware of "the Troubles" there.

"There have been wonderful heroes and heroines who have worked for reconciliation over the years," he reflects. "I thought, let music play its part. In Belfast, the Protestant and Catholic kids would always play music together on the weekends and there were no problems.

"Why not start an ensemble that unites them, a musical melting pot?"

The success of Camerata Ireland has also expanded Douglas' musical horizons. A recent three-disc Beethoven set on the Satirino label shows the orchestra and pianist in fresh readings of all five concerti (plus the Triple Concerto with Chee-Yun and Andres Diaz), wonderfully blending fire and ice, rough and smooth.

Douglas says he's looking forward to his return to Seattle and his collaboration with Gerard Schwarz and the orchestra.

"Seattle is always a special place for me," he adds, "because I'm a manic fan of 'Frasier'!"

Melinda Bargreen reviews concerts for Classic KING-FM Radio at www.king.org. She can be reached at mbargreen@aol.com.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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