Ever since he swept to victory in the Tchaikovsky International Competition two years ago, Irish pianist Barry Douglas has had to steer a tricky course between (a) capitalizing on the sensational publicity boost that contest gave him and (b) establishing himself as a serious artist apart from that event.
You can see it in his recordings: two discs of Russian warhorses - the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto and Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" - followed by Beethoven's "Hammerklavier" Sonata and a collaboration with the Tokyo Quartet in the Brahms Piano Quintet.You can also see it in his concert schedule, which is why later this week he will be making his Utah Symphony debut not in the Tchaikovsky (fellow competitor Xiang-dong Kong is doing that the following week) but the Brahms Second Piano Concerto. Which in fact he has been trying out this past week in four days' worth of concerts with the North Carolina Symphony.
"It's a good way to work sometimes," the 28-year-old Douglas says of his pre-Utah concerts, "because you can build up an interpretation over that time."
Previous to this tour he had performed the Brahms concerto only with student orchestras and currently is alternating it with the seldom-heard Tchaikovsky Second. And to make sure he has the bases covered, he will be playing both versions of the latter - i.e., the composer's own and the arguably more pianistic revision by Alexander Siloti.
"I think the Siloti works better," Douglas says of the two. "It's a bit bombastic but it's possible to make quite a nice effect in it." I observe that the same might be said of the Tchaikovsky First, and Douglas says he agrees. Nonetheless, he does not apologize for the piece, nor does he seem loath to discuss the good and bad sides of the competition he won with it.
"At the time, for about 30 minutes, it was an incredible experience, a great sense of ecstasy. Not so much for the achievement but the euphoria of the whole occasion. I say for 30 minutes because afterward, when you look at the whole thing in perspective, you have to realize that winning a competition is not an achievement at all. It's just something that happened on a certain day.
"The bad side is that, simply from a marketing standpoint, people tend to bill you and think of you primarily as a Tchaikovsky winner as opposed to a musician who has or doesn't have something to say."
Douglas, for his part, has had something to say for a good many years. A native of Belfast, he credits the cultural matrix of that city with much of his early development.
It was there he first performed in public - on the organ - at age 11, and by his middle teens had acquired mastery of not only the keyboard but the clarinet and cello, in addi tion to conducting choirs and chamber orchestras.
The turning point, he says, came when he began studying piano with Felicitas Lewinter, who herself had studied with Emil von Sauer, one of the last surviving pupils of Liszt's. It was she who tuned his ear to the sound potential of the instrument. That led to a scholarship at the Royal College of Music in London, where he is still based today. There he studied with John Barstow and, after graduation, former Schnabel pupil Maria Curzio.
No one can dispute those credentials. And despite the usual charges of bias in the judging, I know of no one who seriously disputed Douglas' award in Moscow. Not only was he the audience favorite going into the finals, but from the TV documentary that aired later in this country he was pretty clearly the winner - i.e., the real flap would have been if he hadn't won.
Nonetheless the critical community has been somewhat mixed in its reaction to Douglas' work, he whom as far back as 1982 the London Daily Telegraph was hailing as "the most prodigiously talented of the younger generation of British pianists." Part of that, Douglas feels, is the Tchaikovsky backlash already alluded to.
"First of all, I tend not to read reviews," he says without the slightest hint of rancor. "The critic may be musically intelligent and honorable, but he also may have missed the point I was trying to get across. Then, too, some automatically assume that because you've won a major competition you're going to have a particular type of playing, which they don't like."
As for his recordings, he admits to a somewhat ambivalent view of them himself. "The very nature of a recording tends not to blow you out of your seat. For one thing it's hard to recreate the spontaneity and excitement of a live concert, unless you have an audience in the studio. I take the middle road and try to get every phrase exactly the way I want it. You can't do that in concert." But whatever the result on the finished record, Douglas says, "like most artists, I tend to tire of them quite quickly, not because they're not valid anymore but because the interpretation is always moving, always changing."
This week's concerts will be presented Thursday at Weber State College, in the Browning Center for the Performing Arts, and Friday and Saturday at Symphony Hall.
In addition to the Brahms concerto, the program will consist of Strauss' "Death and Transfiguration" and Vaughan Williams' Overture to "The Wasps." Christopher Wilkins will conduct, and starting time for each is 8 p.m.