In 1986, Barry Douglas won the 8th International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition with pieces by Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, and Brahms. Program annotator Keith Horner was in that audience and recounts his experiences of seeing Douglas win and the privilege audience members at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival will have to hear him play the same composers. 

Program annotator Keith Horner recounts his experience of being in the audience when Mr. Douglas took home the gold in the 8th International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition.

Tuesday July 1, 1986. Moscow Conservatory. There has been a real buzz in the air around the Conservatory all day long. Hundreds of hopefuls are gathered outside the entrance at No. 13 Gertsena Street. I’m asked at least 20 times whether I have an extra ticket for sale. Iron fencing, decorated with notes from Tchaikovsky’s compositions, keeps the large crowd out. So do the guards (or are they police?), with a loud hailer. Two of the six doors are eventually opened at 7:45 pm to admit those with tickets to the third round of the 8th International Tchaikovsky Competition… scheduled for 7:30 pm. In the elegant, legendary Great Hall, dominated by a giant hung picture of Tchaikovsky (St. Pyotr himself), all the seats quickly fill. People stand in the aisles, occupy the jump seats at the end of each row, crowd the balcony staircase outside the hall. Elderly ushers, unsmiling (but endearingly good-natured when they begin to recognize you after the three or four weeks of the competition), try to clear a section of the aisles. One young girl close to my seat begins to push back, then bursts into tears. Later, one of the jury members tells me that emotions run high because music provides an emotional enrichment to the drabness of everyday life.

Two of the eight finalists will each play two concertos back-to-back in this very hot, unairconditioned hall. Barry Douglas, 26 years old, is the last to play, with the big crashing chords of Tchaikovsky’s B-flat minor concerto immediately winning approving nods from an audience whose knowledge of the work runs deep. Having played Mussorgsky’s Pictures a week earlier in this same hall in Round Two, the Irish pianist has already endeared himself to the Russian audience. “He is endowed with a powerful artistic will and he painted vivid ‘pictures in music,’” reported a trio of Soviet music critics in the Second Round Press Bulletin. I clocked ten minutes of applause on my analogue stop watch after that Mussorgsky performance, jotting down “ecstatic crowd” in my notebook. I immediately put in an order for the audio tape from Gostelradio, for our own radio broadcasts back home to Canada and the U.S.A. Tonight, in the Tchaikovsky concerto, Barry plays magnificently and confidently, coping admirably under the intense heat of television lights for performances broadcast live across the USSR—with at least twelve conspicuous TV and video cameras and twice as many only marginally less conspicuous press photographers clicking their way through the concerto. Around me, I see no one shake their head disapprovingly, as they are apt to do when a musical interpretation displeases. You could hear a pin drop during the slow movement of Barry’s Brahms D minor Concerto. It brings more knowing nods from the audience, who will clap rhythmically and cry “Gold” when the finale draws to its majestic close.

Backstage, TV director Bill Fertik, who has been here all month with three cameras and two soundmen making a documentary for PBS, is uncorking the champagne for Barry. Dozens of fans seek autographs. I arrange an interview for the following day. “Not before 1:00pm,” Barry cautions!

Three days later, July 4, 1986, at 10:30pm, Barry Douglas is announced as the Gold Medal winner. Tonight, 33 years later, Barry will fly to Moscow directly after the Brahms Clarinet Trio to be a juror at the 16th International Tchaikovsky Competition, his third time on this distinguished panel. Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky and Brahms were what I heard Barry Douglas play in Moscow eight competitions ago; we are privileged to hear him play these same composers today.

—Keith Horner


Barry Douglas will be playing at the Shalin Liu Performance Center on June 16, 2019 at 5 p.m.