Barely into his 20s, Ryan MacKenzie is one the country’s most multi-talented musicians. Best known as a pianist, his fluency takes in folk, jazz and classical, 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 performed with such celebrated artists as Susan Boyle, John Owen-Jones, Kerry Ellis, Marisha Wallace, Christina Bianco, Carrie Hope Fletcher, Barbara Dickson, Eddi Reader, and Mica Paris. Other leading names on his CV include Disney, Sir Cameron Mackintosh, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Arlene Phillips, the BBC, the National Theatre of Scotland, and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.
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.”
He went on to study at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, 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. Throughout his time at the RCS, initially on its groundbreaking degree course in traditional music, Ryan’s creative range continued to expand in multiple directions. During his first year, he made his first foray into orchestration, creating arrangements for the annual RCS showcase concert at the world-famous Celtic Connections festival – which involved legendary accordionist Phil Cunningham as artistic director. 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 classical piano programme, Ryan was hired by the drama department as a freelance 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 conducting 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 Euan Stevenson. “The jazz side has given me a totally different perspective on how music works,” he says. “It’s something I definitely want to keep exploring.” During his third and fourth years at RCS, he was also studying arranging and orchestration with the prestigious Berklee College of Music, and crafted brand new arrangements for the conservatoire’s production of Brigadoon, calling on his traditional background to produce an updated Scottish score.
By the time Ryan completed his undergraduate degree in July 2017, he had already served several stints as a keyboard player in the West End revival of Guys and Dolls, the international tours of West Side Story and Mary Poppins, and the national tour of Wonderland. Moving to London shortly after graduating, he spent his first few months working with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Arlene Phillips on the 30th anniversary version of Starlight Express and touring as music director to YouTube sensation, Christina Bianco. Most recently, he conducted West End Does: Bond, starring John Owen-Jones, Marisha Wallace, and Rob Houchen among other West End names, played piano on Carrie Hope Fletcher’s debut album, When The Curtain Falls, and was one of the music supervisors on The Heart of Hollywood, which had a three week run at The O2 and is set to begin a five year world tour.