Belfast-born composer on how winning the competition turned money troubles into international stardom
An internationally acclaimed pianist born in Belfast who divides his time between Paris and Lurgan remembers his humble beginnings.
Arry Douglas was the first non-Russian since the 1950s to win a gold medal at the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in 1986.
It was an impressive feat for the former student who recalled being broke twice in his life, during an interview with The Sunday Times.
“I moved to London to study and when I left the Royal College of Music I had no money and was playing cocktail piano in a hotel,” he explained.
“I wasn’t very good because people weren’t coming to the bar anymore. I was very overdrawn and received letters from the bank.
“I decided to go to the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow and I won.”
Money flowed in after the stunning performance, which launched a career that spawned 30 albums.
The musician revealed he ran into financial difficulties on another occasion after being forced to stay home for nine months due to stress in 1993, giving him time to learn new tunes and reset.
“I was officially broke, but I wasn’t broke because I knew I would make money when I came out of a sabbatical.”
The pianist – who has performed in some of the world’s most prestigious venues alongside renowned orchestras including the London Symphony Orchestra – admits he has struggled during the Covid-19 outbreak.
“I survived the pandemic because RTE and the National Concert Hall invited me to participate in live concerts and paid me for it,” he revealed.
“It saved my bacon. They have helped many of us Irish musicians.
“I was earning less than in a typical year, but they were our saviors.”
The former church organist – a job he started when he was 11 – said he felt wealthy compared to his childhood, but prefers to describe himself as comfortable.
“We have three children and if they need things, that’s where I feel rich because I can afford to transfer money to them,” Douglas added.
The entertainer also revealed his highest-grossing gig at a WWII commemoration in Belgium – someone outside the event handed him €5,000 in cash.
The director of Bangor’s Clandeboye Festival has insisted he is motivated by the recognition he receives for his art rather than any financial reward – meaning he returned to the same event to play for free.
The married father-of-three credits his parents’ healthy savings account and attitude to money with which they bought their first home for £2,000 in 1966.
“I’m more of a saver because I come from a humble background, although my mum and dad were brilliant with money…they were careful and that taught me a lot,” he said .
The Audi Quattro driver is still prone to “splurge once in a while” on luxury goods such as £120 bottles of wine. His best investment remains the first Steinway he bought in London at age 27 and the second he bought two years later when moving to Paris — although he recently sold them to help buy another one.
The OBE and CBE beneficiary has also invested in three properties which he says are worth more than a pension.
He said: “No one will want to rent our house in Lurgan but they might want to rent one of our apartments in Paris.”