MUSIC FOR Galway presents a trusty antidote to the darkness and cold of January in the form of a heart-warming weekend of great chamber music running from Friday January 21 to Sunday 23 at the Town Hall Theatre.
The theme this year is Amongst Friends, reflecting the intimate setting for which chamber music was and is written and performed, as well as the friendships made amongst musicians as they come together to play, and last but not least the bond created through the communal experience of listening to music.
At the core of the programme is Galway’s Ensemble in Residence, the ConTempo Quartet, who will be joined by the celebrated Irish musician, pianist and conductor Barry Douglas for concerts on the Friday and Saturday night at 8pm.
Gems from the chamber music repertoire by Brahms, Schubert and Dvorák for string quartet, piano solo and piano quintet will feature in these two concerts. On Saturday at 2pm audiences will get a chance to experience Barry Douglas in his role as mentor when he leads a public masterclass with local piano students.
The final concert on Sunday at 3pm will open with Mendelssohn’s ‘Capriccio’ for string quartet. Romanian cellist Eugen Mantu (brother of ConTempo’s cellist Adrian ) performs one of his favourite pieces for solo cello, Bach’s Cello Suite No 1.
Eugen will then join ConTempo Quartet and bring the festival to a close with Schubert’s last instrumental work, written just two months before the composer’s untimely death, the sublime String Quintet.
Barry Douglas has performed with every major international orchestra and collaborated with feted conductors such as Vladimir Ashkenazy, Mstistlav Rostropovich, and Kurt Sanderling. Recently Barry has enjoyed huge success with orchestras such as the London Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Hallé Orchestra, and Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, as well as the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra.
With the great success of his own orchestra, Camerata Ireland, Barry increasingly devotes part of his time to directing from the piano and conducting.
Douglas was born in Belfast and won the Gold Medal at the 1986 Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow - the only non-Russian since Van Cliburn to have won this prestigious award outright.
He had previously won the Bronze Medal at the Van Cliburn Competition in Texas in 1985 and the top prize in the Santander Paloma O’Shea competition in Spain. He first performed for Music for Galway in October 1988 and returned for further recitals in 1996 and 2003.
Ahead of his forthcoming visit to Galway, Douglas took some time out from his busy schedule to talk about his music, beginning with the thinking behind the programming choices for the Amongst Friends weekend.
“I think Brahms and Schubert were great lyricists - song writers in other words - and that comes over so well on the piano,” he tells me. “I am also embarking this year on a project to record the complete solo piano works of both composers. Dvorak of course was also a great opera composer and his Quintet links up with Brahms’ love of gypsy music.”
This is Barry’s fourth occasion to play for Music For Galway so does he have fond memories of performing here?
“Of course!” he asserts. “I love the atmosphere of the city and I love Connemara. My own mother is from Sligo and so the west of Ireland for me is very important.”
Barry has had the satisfaction of seeing his own orchestra, Camerata Ireland, achieve considerable international success. The ensemble will tour to the United States later this year with Barry’s arrangement of John Field’s ‘Nocturnes’ for piano and chamber orchestra.
Camerata has been described as possessing a distinctively Irish string sound which Barry defines thus: “It is a warm and expressive playing and the players are totally committed to excellence and vibrancy- and that comes across to the audiences. They see the difference with Camerata Ireland immediately compared to other orchestras - symphonic and otherwise.”
As well as being an outstanding pianist, Barry also excels as a conductor, often leading the orchestra from his keyboard. How do these two facets of his career bear on each other?
“I believe conducting or playing are both the same, it is just a different instrument,” he declares. “In fact, I think that if conductors worked more like how a pianist has to work and vice versa they would all do far better in getting the music across.
“Conductors should have the complete score in their head like a pianist and yet the pianist is sometimes too bogged down with the technical without appreciating the whole expression, which is what conductors are forced to do as they can’t make a sound themselves.”
Another highpoint in the coming year will see Barry perform Kevin Volans’ new piano concerto (written for Barry ) at the Proms 2011 in London, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. How did that piece come about?
“Kevin and I had known about each other for quite a time but then we met and hit it off immediately,” says Barry. “He has so many wonderful ideas and influences that I think this new piece will be something very special – and very rich.”
Alongside Douglas, Music For Galway’s line-up of musical friends includes ConTempo Quartet and Bucharest native Eugen Mantu. This is the ConTempo Quartet’s eighth year as Galway’s Ensemble in Residence.
The quartet has toured the world extensively, performing in prestigious venues such as Carnegie Hall, the Wigmore Hall, St Martin in the Fields, and The Philharmonic Hall Berlin, alongside a busy programme of community, educational and performance activities in Galway.
Eugen Mantu was born in Bucharest and started to play the violin at six and the cello at eight years of age. Since 1986 he has been solo cellist of the Erfurt Philharmonic Orchestra and has performed many concertos with the orchestra.
In 1999 he went on a musical journey through Catalonia and played in all the places connected with Pablo Casals, including on the mountain of Montserrat. In 2009 he was made Chair of the Chamber Music Association in Erfurt.
So make a date to drive back the chill of January and shorten the winter; be there at the Town Hall Theatre from Friday 21 to Sunday 23 January; Amongst Friends!
Tickets are €20/16/6 and are available from Music for Galway (091 - 705962 ), Opus II at the Cornstore, or through www.tht.ie