Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
My family had a dear friend called Greta, who fled Vienna during WWII and came to Ireland. As a little boy I would sit and watch concerts on the tv (particularly the BBC Proms) with her and was fascinated with the variety in and possibilities of music. Greta kindly gave me her upright piano (which I still have to this day!) on the condition my parents sent me to lessons!
My first teacher was the wonderful Liz Leonard at the Leeson Park School of Music in Dublin. The focus of the school was music education through the ‘Colourstrings’ method which was an immensely enjoyable way to learn and discover music. Before starting piano lessons I remember that for a whole year we just played musical games and were brought to many different concerts, workshops and performances, with the view that each child would then naturally pick their instrument of choice and I chose the piano! That’s when my journey really began.
I then moved to the Royal Irish Academy of Music to study with Thérèse Fahy when I was 11 and stayed with her all the way through to my BA! I After that I studied in London at the Royal Academy of Music with Hamish Milne and at the CNSMD Paris with Jacques Rouvier.
I think the biggest influences on my musical life were all these teachers who gave everything to their students and without whom I don’t think I would have fallen in love with music the way I did. I only ever really had two main passions in life, music and animals. I did go to Vet school in UCD to start a veterinary degree when I left school. Trying to juggle music and veterinary was a real challenge and in my second year of the degree, as much as I loved it, the pull of music was just too great! I remember someone said to me once that “you should only pursue a career in music if you can’t imagine yourself doing anything else”. I actually disagree with this as I could have easily become a very happy vet so I couldn’t say music was the “only” thing I ever imagined doing. For me though, the draw of music was too strong to ignore!
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Definitely Covid for all the obvious reasons! Pre-Covid I would say trying to carve out a career for yourself once you leave college. I don’t have an agent so I, like many musicians, do all my own concert searching and admin, which is tough at the beginning and intimidating trying to approach different festivals etc.
Two very enjoyable and satisfying challenges for me were setting up the West Wicklow Chamber Music Festival in 2016 and Classical Vauxhall in 2019. Running and programming two festivals takes a lot of work but, I really enjoy it and it provides variety in my day when I take breaks from practising or rehearsing. It’s definitely no easy thing setting up festivals from scratch but I’ve learned a huge amount along the way and it has brought out the entrepreneur in me! It’s also a really powerful and liberating feeling being in charge (if that’s the right term) of programming!
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
I remember I was in RTE radio studios one famous day in May 2011 to promote a concert I had coming up with conductor John Wilson and the RTE Concert Orchestra. Five minutes before going live on air the producer informed me that Gareth Fitzgerald (former Taoiseach of Ireland) had died. Apparently he loved Debussy and the producer asked if I would play something. I hadn’t prepared any Debussy obviously for the Gershwin concert I was there to promote, but as we often do in these kinds of moments, I found the confidence and clarity of thought and played one of his preludes.
My debut at Wigmore Hall in 2013 was of course a very special moment which I’ll never forget either and glad that my now sadly deceased teacher Hamish Milne was there to see me achieve that milestone. Anyone who knew Hamish knows what an amazing person and musician he was. That concert was recorded live for CD which, is also a lovely memory to have and a very honest live recording with warts and all!
The first two concertos I ever played with orchestra were Rachmaninov’s Paganini variations and Prokofiev no 3 so they occupy a special place in my heart and you never forget that first time with a full orchestra and the adrenaline that comes with that!
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
I would say in general works from the romantic period, 20th century and onwards, but I force myself to play as much Bach and more classical works as I can to feel like I am working on those areas in which I might not feel as necessarily comfortable. As pianists, a lot of the time it really depends on the piano you are playing or practising on, as certain instruments are just better suited to certain repertoire and thus influences what you feel you are doing “best”.
What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?
Farming! When I’m in Ireland I’m on the farm constantly. Whether it’s lambing in the spring, shearing sheep in the summer, making hay, dipping or dosing, there are always a million things to do and I just love it. I’ve only ever met one other “farming musician” and we both almost didn’t know how to cope with the news that we weren’t unique anymore! Most of my London friends don’t really believe the farming piece until they see it for themselves!
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
Sometimes I have a very specific theme in mind and other times programmes just fall together organically. There are also times when there are certain works I’ve just wanted to play for ages and I say “right, this year is the year”, but I’ve no one fixed approach. One beneficial aspect of the Covid pandemic has been to have loads of times to just get lost in learning new works and indulging your day to day preferences of what to play a lot more.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
It’s a very biased choice, but I would say the National Concert Hall in Dublin. It’s the venue I’ve performed most in and because I know all the backstage staff and technical crew too, it really just feels like being amongst friends and at home. The acoustics in the hall are also wonderful and I’ve performed there since the age of 9 so it’s the venue of which I have most memories!
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?
I think great work is being done to make classical music more accessible and inclusive, but of course more can always be done. Coming from Ireland, where there is little or no free music education, (there certainly wasn’t when I was young anyway), I am amazed that in the UK many schools run free music programmes. Clearly if one’s only access to music is via money then you’ll only attract a very small and specific group of people. My Mam and Dad are by no means wealthy and worked incredibly hard to send my sister and me to private music lessons after school (state school and proud, by the way!). I think Finland has a wonderful model of free access to music education from which we all could learn a lot! With Classical Vauxhall our aim is very much to have informal relaxed concerts and what has been really satisfying is how varied our audience demographic has been.
I never understand when people say classical music is “snooty” and you have to dress up to go to a concert. If you go to a concert at Wigmore or the Southbank people are mostly very casually dressed in jeans and t-shirts. You might get the odd person very dressed up (and good for them) but I just don’t accept this argument that in 2021 unless you turn up in formal attire you’ll look out of place; YOU WON’T! Maybe opera houses have to battle with this perception more but as an instrumentalist mostly going to recitals I think the environment in general in very relaxed. Also as a performer you set the tone, if you’re chilled and relaxed so too will the audience!
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Probably my Wigmore hall debut mentioned above. My Aunt had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer and I dedicated the concert to her from the stage. I also remember being slightly terrified beforehand, but when I walked out on stage and saw so many of my friends in the audience I just felt great! One of my friends, Paula, brought her entire rugby team along, which was hilarious!
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Success for me is happiness and fulfilment, most importantly not comparing myself to others. I don’t spend much time on Facebook or Twitter (just to post details of concerts etc) as I’m conscious of not defining my own success based on what others are doing. All I can do every day, in music and in life, is my best. As long as I’ve done that I’m really ok with the rest. I love the variety of paying solo piano, chamber music and running two festivals (West Wicklow Festival and Classical Vauxhall) and the enjoyment I get from this constant change of scenery is what I love and need.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
I know it sounds cheesy, but really be yourself. There is only one of you and you will always be the best at it! Surround yourself by positive influences and not overly negative teachers or mentors. Music should be fun and if you’re not having fun most of the time something is wrong. Of course there a moments of hard work and stress, but they should not become overbearing and take over. It’s entertainment, not life or death!
Where would you like to be in 10 years?
Honestly just happy and healthy! That might sound very unambitious but with everything that has happened since 2020 I really just count my blessings every day, even though another part of me would love to say, in 10 years I’ll be recording all 3 Bartok concertos with the LSO, for now it’s just to be happy and still a musician of some kind in 10 years!
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
My own little house with a purpose-built music studio and if I’ve nothing else in the house but a bed and a Steinway or Fazioli, I’d be happy, plus a few chickens and sheep of course for good measure, to keep the farmer in me satisfied!
What is your most treasured possession?
My bike – I cycle everywhere in London, and if in Ireland then I’d say my wee little car!
What is your present state of mind?
Hopeful and positive for the Roaring 20’s to come back. Despite the current doom and gloom, I look forward to being able to hug people I love again and not taking all the little things we had before for granted! Who’d have ever have thought in our lifetimes that meeting up with friends to go to a concert or have dinner would have been a banned activity!
First prize-winner of the 2012 Jaques Samuel Intercollegiate Piano Competition and former NCH Rising Star, Fiachra Garvey ARAM, grew up on Móin Bhán in the Wicklow mountains. He spent his early childhood being the understudy to the family sheep dog Rex (who had lofty ambitions for early retirement) and playing the piano! Other pastimes included swimming in the Blessington lakes and staging plays in the attic with his sister and cohort of friends. Since those more playful days, Fiachra has obtained his Dip Mus, BA and MA degrees from the Royal Academy of Music London, the Royal Irish Academy of Music and received prizes at many international competitions including Dublin AXA, EU Prague and Collioure, France.