Pianist, musical director, and arranger/orchestrator, working in classical, folk, jazz, theatre and pop.
Barely into his 20s, Ryan MacKenzie is one of Scotland’s most multi-talented musicians. Best known as a pianist – classically trained from aged seven – he’s also a highly regarded fiddler, reflecting both the vibrant heritage of his native north-east, and the world-famous musical melting-pot of his current Glasgow base. On piano, Ryan’s fluency takes in classical, folk, musical theatre and jazz, as both soloist and accompanist, while his repertoire of skills and experience includes musical direction, conducting, orchestration and arranging, across the realms of theatre, musicals, dance, TV and radio. Thanks to this prodigious versatility, Ryan has already worked with such celebrated artists and companies as David White (Les Misérables/Lion King) Keith Jack, Lee Mead (Any Dream Will Do/Joseph), Andy Massey (Guys and Dolls/Billy Elliot), Simon Beck (Spamalot/Rocky Horror Show), the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, The Scottish Ensemble and the National Theatre of Scotland. Other leading names on his CV include Barbara Dickson, Cora Bissett, Eddi Reader, Mica Paris, Aly Bain, Phil Cunningham, Citizens Theatre and Youth Music Theatre UK, at Sadler’s Wells in London. Meanwhile, in 2014, he was also an invited finalist in the prestigious Glenfiddich Fiddle Championship, Scotland’s top contest for traditional players. All this, too, before Ryan has even completed his BMus degree at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS), where he studies with Nadia Boulanger alumnus Norman Beedie, Irish trad-rooted pianist Mary McCarthy, folk/jazz innovator Hamish Napier, and jazz/fusion luminaries David Milligan and Euan Stevenson. Ryan was born and raised in the small fishing town of Buckie, around the coast from Aberdeen. Right from his earliest encounter with the piano, at primary school, it was love at first sight. “The teacher used to play during music classes, and I was just instantly fascinated,” he says. “I nagged and nagged and nagged at my mum to get me lessons, and when I did start learning, I seemed to take to it really quickly. I loved it – I never needed moaning at to practise.” On fiddle, he’s essentially self-taught, inspired by growing up amid one of the instrument’s richest traditional heartlands, while later benefiting, too, from the fabled wisdom of fellow Buckie native Douglas Lawrence, perhaps today’s foremost exponent of the north-east style. “I’ve always mixed up different styles of music,” Ryan says. “It’s never been a conscious effort to makes bridges between them – it’s just kind of happened, by following what appeals to me musically.” Throughout his time at the RCS, initially on its groundbreaking degree course in traditional music, Ryan’s creative range has continued to expand, in multiple directions. During his first year, he worked on a new production of Brigadoon, including an updated Scottish score, with the National Theatre of Scotland, renowned musical director Simon Beck, and legendary accordionist Phil Cunningham. Also as a freshman, Ryan made his first foray into orchestration, creating arrangements for the annual RCS showcase concert at the world-famous Celtic Connections festival – which again involved Cunningham, as artistic director of the traditional music course. “It seemed a good chance to give it a shot,” Ryan explains, “even if I did end up working until 4am every night for a week beforehand, sweating over string parts for songs. During the actual show, though, one arrangement I’d done reduced Phil to a complete emotional mess on the floor – he came and shook my hand afterwards, and could still barely speak – so I figured I must be doing something right.” Thanks to Cunningham’s recommendation, Ryan has subsequently performed in, and orchestrated material for, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s hugely popular annual Scottish-themed concerts, also featuring Aly Bain, Eddi Reader and Barbara Dickson. Having transferred in his second year from the traditional music course to the more performance-based BMus programme, Ryan was hired by the theatre department as a paid accompanist, meanwhile still working with classical singers and instrumentalists among his fellow music students, and playing for education and community projects run by Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre. He also found time to make his debut – aged just 19 – as musical director, for a production of West Side Story by a local company back home, hailed by one reviewer as “a formidable performance. . . a real triumph of musical theatre.” As regards his own studies, by now Ryan was adding jazz to his mastery of classical, folk and theatrical styles, with tutoring from David Milligan and Euan Stevenson. “The jazz side’s given me a totally different perspective on things like voicing, and the rules of harmony,” he says. “It’s something I definitely want to keep getting better at.” On the folk front, meanwhile, his talents have been called on by such award-winning acts as singer Robyn Stapleton, fiddler Kristan Harvey and Glasgow band Barluath. Summer 2015 found Ryan in London, working as associate musical director on the contemporary dance opera Sweat Factory, produced by Youth Music Theatre UK, at Sadler’s Wells, as well as taking conducting lessons with David White. This was followed by several appearances at the Edinburgh Festival, both playing solo and as accompanist to Any Dream Will Do runner-up Keith Jack. Building on this experience, Ryan has increasingly taken on musical direction and conducting roles – as well as performing – in RCS productions, including an acclaimed revival of Cabaret in March 2016, where he appeared as the nightclub pianist. (“The onstage band produced the ideal blend of sleaze and precision playing,” raved the Herald. “A complete triumph.”) Also in 2016, Ryan has served several stints as pianist in the ongoing West End revival of Guys and Dolls, as well as working on the current National Theatre of Scotland production of contemporary Scottish classic Glasgow Girls, directed by Cora Bissett. In February, Ryan’s orchestrations featured in a performance by Any Dream Will Do winner Lee Mead – together with a 1000-voice choir – at Cardiff’s Motorpoint Arena, on the day Mead released his latest album, Some Enchanted Evening. “It certainly keeps me busy,” says Ryan, happily reflecting on all this multifarious activity. “One night I’ll be playing a ceilidh, the next I’ll be conducting a show, the next accompanying a singer. What with studying and practising as well, I put in a lot of long days – but I really enjoy the variety, and just being open to whatever comes along.”
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