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, Christina Bianco, Carrie Hope Fletcher, Barbara Dickson, Eddi Reader, Lee Mead 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 things like voicing, and the rules of harmony,” he says. “It’s something I definitely want to keep getting better at.”
Ryan served several stints as pianist in the West End revival of Guys and Dolls throughout 2016, as well as working on the 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. He also wrote the string arrangements for BBC Young Traditional Musician of the Year Robyn Stapleton’s new album, The Songs of Robert Burns, which was released at Celtic Connections in January 2017, and crafted brand new arrangements for the Royal Conservatoire’s production of Brigadoon, calling on his traditional background to produce an updated Scottish score. 2017 has seen him perform as a pianist in the West Side Story international tour, conducted by student of Bernstein, Donald Chan, and play the acclaimed first keyboard chair on the Mary Poppins international tour, produced by Sir Cameron Mackintosh. He also played keyboards on the UK tour of Wonderland, starring Kerry Ellis, and was Christina Bianco’s music director for her UK concerts.