Interview from Irish Times –
The Classical Pianist with two horses outside

Arminta Wallace

CLASSICAL PIANISTS aren’t necessarily the most grounded folk you could meet. In fact – and I say this as a one- time classical-pianist wannabe – they can come across as anything from effete to other-worldly to outright weird. A rising star on the Irish scene is, however, bringing a breath of fresh air to this often rarefied world. If you met young Fiachra Garvey in the pub, I doubt you would peg him for a classical musician at all. He’s relaxed and chatty and at ease in his own skin – with an eyebrow piercing to prove it.

Most strikingly, however, he’s not obsessed with music to the exclusion of everything else. On the contrary, when we meet to discuss his career so far, and the way his engagement diary is filling up with increasingly glitzy concert bookings, the conversation quickly turns to the topic of animals. “We have Suffolk and Cheviot sheep; continental beef cattle; two horses,” Garvey says, as he takes a sip of coffee. “We had hens. We stopped that briefly, but my mum wants to get the poultry going again. “Nothing to do with bird flu,” he adds, before I can draw breath to ask. This isn’t a diversionary tactic. It’s not that he’s trying to avoid talking about music. It’s that, having grown up on a farm and having played the piano since the age of six, animals and music occupy equal space on his cultural continuum.

“The thing is, Hélène Grimaud is one of my favourite pianists,” he says. “Besides her playing, there’s her whole personality. I mean, she has a wolf sanctuary just outside New York. So she’ll literally play a big Brahms concerto and come back and be feeding the wolves.

“I just love the fact that she has other things in her life. It’s not just: ‘I play the piano and I eat and I sleep’. If you’ve never experienced life outside the piano, how can you possibly put any emotion into the piano? How can you talk about what the greater meaning of the piece is? It’s not about just sitting in a room. It’s about going and experiencing things, and then being able to take inspiration from that.” Much of Garvey’s inspiration comes from the farm 12km from blessington where he grew up with animals of the more domesticated kind. “The Feis Ceoil used to always happen around lambing season, right? And I remember one time I was going back into the final of the Read Cup or something, and one of the sheep had triplets. So me and my dad were running down and sorting out the sheep. Then I had to run back, shower and get ready for the competition. I was, like, ‘Oh, God — everyone else has been practising, and I’m coming in after helping a sheep give birth’.”

This strong connection to the messy realities of animal husbandry helps to keep his feet on firm musical ground, he says. “As a meditative thing before a concert, I’ll always have a walk down the fields. Or just go – I dunno – sit on the hay or something. I really find it therapeutic. It’s so quiet. I love where I live. I wouldn’t change it for a million years.”

Music entered Garvey’s life when he began to take lessons in Leeson Park School of Music at the age of five. “My mum had a really good friend who had come to Ireland from Austria during the second World War. My mum worked for that family, and they had a piano. She was always telling my mum, ‘If you have kids they should do music. It’s really important’. My parents weren’t from a musical background, so it might not have been something they would have thought about.”

It began with a year of singing, clapping and listening. Eventually he chose the piano as his instrument.

“I always did my practice and stuff, but it was only when I was, maybe, 10 or 11 that I began to go, ‘I’m really mad about this’,” Garvey recalls. “Then it definitely began to take priority over homework and things. Like, it was the main thing I wanted to do. It was always in my head. I need to get home and play the piano.”

By then he was doing several hours a day. When Therésè Fahy from the Royal Irish Academy of Music (RIAM) came to Leeson Park to give masterclasses, he signed up with her and started to focus on music full-time.

By his final year of school, however, he was facing a difficult choice: did he want to be a vet or a musician? “I did my diploma in music – that was a year full-time at the academy. Then I did a year in veterinary at UCD. And I did all my exams and stuff and I was really, really happy, and I loved it. But it was too difficult to balance both. “There’s too many hours. It’s not just a nine-to-five course, veterinary. You have to be in early to do dissections and stay later for farm commitments. I thought, ‘Oh, God, if I do this for five years, music’s definitely gonna suffer’. So that’s when I was, like, I have to go back and study music full-time. Music is not something you can do on top of something else.”

The latter point was proved beyond doubt when Garvey fell asleep while driving and crashed his car during a week in which he was doing exams. It could have been the end of everything but it hasn’t been the 24-year-old’s only brush with danger. During his year at veterinary college he went to South Africa at Christmas to visit some friends he had met on a summer music course.

“My friend lives near the zoo in Johannesburg, and he said, ‘We can look in and see the cheetah from outside’. It was Christmas Day, and security was really lax, and we were looking in like this . . . ” He puts his hands around his eyes to create the impression of binoculars.

“And then I felt this thing on the back of my head, and I looked round, and here were these two guys screaming at me. I didn’t know what they were saying – I think it was Zulu – but I knew what the gist was.” Did it put him off Johannesburg? Not exactly. “My friend has this thing, the Play It Again Foundation, where well- off families donate instruments to kids who are very, very poor. And it’s this amazing youth orchestra. I spent a few days there. It was a fantastic experience. Sometimes in music you feel, ‘Is this selfish? Am I doing this just for me?’ Obviously you’re sharing music in your concerts. But sometimes you wonder, ‘What difference am I making to the world in general?’ ”

Garvey is determined to make as much of a difference as he can. He has played as many fund-raising concerts as time – and the constant need to raise money to pay the appallingly high costs of top-level piano tuition – will permit. “Me and my friends Ruth and Jessie just did a concert at Froebel College for the Hope Foundation, to send student teachers to India. And afterwards we said to the guy, ‘We’d love to go to India ourselves and play some concerts there’. Because unless you offer, people don’t know that you’d be up for it. They probably think, oh, three full-time musicians, they wouldn’t be interested. I’d go in a heartbeat. The experience would be incredible.” As a musician, he says, no matter where you go, you can get stuck in and play – even with people you’ve just met – leaping confidently across barriers of language, culture and style.

That is just what he did last year while he was spending an Erasmus year studying at the Paris Conservatoire with the French pianist Jacques Rouvier. He went to jazz clubs and got together with musicians from all over the world. He is now in his final year at the RIAM, and will head to the Royal Academy of Music in London next year to do a master’s degree. but there will be plenty of opportunities to hear him before that, including his “graduation gig” at the National Concert Hall next month (see panel).

All this exposure is, he insists, down to the Dublin International Piano Competition. Among the Korean and Japanese names of the prize-winners from the 2009 competition, Garvey is listed as taking the Brennan Prize, together with the McCullough bursary, for the best-placed Irish competitor. It has given him a massive boost, he says, providing the recent recital opportunity at the National Concert Hall as well as the funding for a debut CD, to be recorded with Lyric FM at the end of August.

The recital was a huge success: he went for a massively challenging programme and delivered it with energy, but also with grace and delicacy. Many pianists would have erred on the side of caution for such an important concert, but not Garvey.

“You have to take risks when you perform. Otherwise, what’s the point?” he says. “It’s hard, because you’re naked out there. But if music isn’t doing that, it’s pointless.”

As for performance opportunities – and this is against the accepted wisdom of the classical hierarchy – he reckons that staying in Ireland to study has played a positive role in building his career. “A lot of my close friends went to Germany, France and London to study at 18 or 19,” he explains. “I opted to stay. [The] standard of teaching is very high in Ireland, but also, in the academy there’s five to 10 people in a year. In a big international conservatory, there’s a few hundred.

“In Paris, the people I met who are the same age as me – and who have gone through the same process as me – haven’t done half of the things I’ve been able to do. In Paris, there’s a thousand piano players – God knows how many of my age. There’s just too much competition for everyone to have performance opportunities. In Ireland the performance platform is incredible.

“Of course you still have to work and prove you’re capable of doing the things but, if you’re willing to work hard and grab all the opportunities, there’s a lot to be said for staying in Ireland.”

As his career progresses, Garvey will have to play all over the world. Does he have a musical dream? He certainly does.

“My dream is that someone would sponsor me to get a Steinway grand piano. I always say to my mum, ‘If someone did that I’d give them a private recital every weekend for the rest of my life. I’d be, like, their musical slave.”

What makes a Steinway worth a lifetime of part-time slavery? “It’s such a major part of your practising,” he explains. “If you’re working on a good piano, you just can’t help but become a better player. If you’re playing in good concert halls, they’ll have a Steinway, so to practise on one at home makes everything so much easier.”

He has two pianos: an Austrian upright his mother’s friend gave him as a present when he was very young – “it means so much to me, because it’s the piano I started on” – and a Kawai baby grand he got when he was 13. “It’s a really good piano and it does me fine, but . . .”

He laughs. “You can always dream. And that’s the dream. When I was in Paris I was joking with my friends: ‘Now, guys, the plan is I’ll be walking down the road some day and I’ll just, like, you know, bump into [fashion designers] Dolce and Gabbana or something. And they’ll just sponsor my career, and I’ll be laughing.

“And my friends said, ‘Well, Fiachra, the fact that they’re Italian doesn’t help. You just might not bump into them in the Parisian streets.’ ”

What did I tell you? A breath of fresh air.