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Orchestrating Goodwill for Northern Ireland

LIANE HANSEN, host:

The long era of violence and hostility in Northern Ireland finally may be coming to an end. This past week, the leaders of Northern Ireland's Protestant and Catholic factions put aside their differences, met for the first time in Belfast, and agreed to a power-sharing arrangement.

Northern Ireland's Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure hopes that a lasting peace will attract more tourists to the country. It's now promoting its Rediscover Northern Ireland project, and has begun a four-month program here in the United States to raise awareness of Northern Ireland's revitalized cities and culture.

One of the program's ambassadors is pianist Barry Douglas, the founder and director of the Camerata Ireland Orchestra. When he came to our studio in Washington, I wanted to know if Americans still have some misconceptions about Northern Ireland.

Mr. BARRY DOUGLAS (Pianist; Founder and Director, Camerata Ireland Orchestra): I'm not sure they're misconceptions, it's just that everybody - because that's the nature of media, they report the things that have happened which are, kind of, "spectacular" in inverted commas. And unfortunately, over the years, because Northern Ireland had a conflict, it's all been, kind of, bad news: troubles, killings, bombings, et cetera. And now, here is a chance - because we have peace and certainly economically, it's getting on its feet after all these years, and that's very exciting - here's a chance to say, here's a good news story about Northern Ireland.

HANSEN: How did the troubles touch you personally, maybe when you were growing up?

Mr. DOUGLAS: That's a good question, because I can't possibly ever know exactly how much they touched me. I know because - going into the center of Belfast, for instance - it was always - my mother was frantic always and told my sister and me that if we go in, you just don't talk to anybody. You don't go into a shop too long, you get out. We had a whole series of instructions my mother -any mother would have told their child. But we weren't directly affected by anything. We lived in a neighborhood, which was not, like, - we call it now an interface area or the conflict area.

How it affected us on a, kind of, more human and more emotional level, that's difficult to quantify, but I remember when I - in my school, we had a French teacher who was actually an English woman. She used to say that she thought that Northern Irish children were kind of more mature or more understanding than their English counterparts because they've been through these troubles; it was always in the background of their lives. And so as a result, they had become - they'd been changed on a fundamental level.

HANSEN: Tell us a little bit, though, how the conflict affected the music scene. Did it have an effect on your music? Did it have an effect on even the venues that you would play?

Mr. DOUGLAS: It had an effect on every level, because often, you would go to a concert or an opera and we had to get out three or four times because there was a bomb scare, real or just phoned-in hoax. But on another level, of course, if you have a conflict in a place then there's not the same investment, there's not the same nightlife. And so you don't have many concerts, there's not as much audience going to concerts - I remember the first concert I went to, the Ulster Orchestra, I was about 11 years old, and a wonderful American pianist, Leonard Pennario, was playing Prokofiev's "Third Piano Concerto."

There was a handful of people in this huge auditorium. And that was - that's how it was in those days. People didn't go to concerts. They didn't go out at night. There were few restaurants.

Fast-forward to now, and, you know - and this strikes me every time I go to Belfast - I just can't believe it. I see cranes dotting the skyline, you know, construction. I see shopping malls springing up, the restaurants, the wine bars, the nightlife is comparable to any major capital in the world. And so between when I was 11 and now, I just cannot believe the difference.

And all the new buildings, all the nightlife, all the buzz, I go regularly to Belfast. But I see every time I go back, it has changed. It is kind of -there's an incredible crescendo happening there.

HANSEN: Tell us a little bit about the founding of Camerata Ireland. This is an all-Ireland orchestra that you put together around 1999. What was the reason for putting this together?

Mr. DOUGLAS: One is, in Ireland, if you want to study music, you have to go somewhere else, and then you don't come back. And I would see lots of different Irish musicians all around the world, especially in Europe, isolated in different orchestras. And I wanted to bring the best of them together, bring them home for a project, and create an orchestra, which was fantastic but also celebrated the wealth of Irish talent.

Ireland is not that well known for classical music. It's well known for theater, you know, rock music, traditional music, poetry. But for classical music, it really doesn't have that much of a name, and that's a shame because as per capita, it has produced so many wonderful classical musicians.

And so that was part of the reasoning behind it, but at the same time, I want to help young people as well. I want to celebrate the Irish talent, which is there, and also to celebrate the friendship between Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland, because music knows no boundaries. And I think music is a very important thing in terms of healing, in terms of bridging gaps.

So my stance is, Irish people have more in common than is normally admitted. And we musicians have a part to play in it.

HANSEN: What do you think, realistically, about the prospect for lasting peace in Northern Ireland?

Mr. DOUGLAS: Oh, yeah, it - it's already happened. We have peace in Northern Ireland. The peace process has succeeded. The only thing, the last, kind of, jigsaw bit is, of course, the politicians have to realize that this is a 500-year-old story, which is about to, kind of, not get resolved, but get to a place where we can relax a little bit. And it's really, really exciting.

HANSEN: Pianist Barry Douglas is the founder and director of Camerata Ireland. His recordings of Beethoven's piano concertos are on the Satarino record label. He was in the United States to promote Rediscover Northern Ireland, a four-month program to create awareness of Northern Ireland culture here in the United States.

Northern Ireland will be featured at this summer's Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Thanks a lot for coming in.

Mr. DOUGLAS: Thanks.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.