Fiachra Garvey: From sheep dipping to Shostakovich

Pianist and farmer talks about agriculture, classical music and protecting his hands

Fiachra Garvey is not just a musician and a farmer. He's a talker, too. When I catch up with him at home in London, it's he who gets the first question in, about the day's weather in Dublin. Somehow we end up chatting about some of the worst downpours we've been caught out in.

He’s in an upbeat mood. As he later says of himself, “I’m no doomer and gloomer.” This is a serious understatement. He comes across as someone with the kind of skill to find the positives in the worst of situations. And, although we spend time mulling over the problems we’ve all been living with for 13 months, his takeaways are almost always positive.

In the first lockdown, he came home to Co Wicklow for four or five months, which meant he was able to work on the family farm, and back in London in September he was able to give concerts again. Back in Ireland at Christmas he was able to prepare a programme for Music Network with violinist Patrick Rafter, January restrictions meant they couldn't record it. They did eventually record their programme of Franck, Ysaÿe, Fauré with a new work by Emma O'Halloran in April.

In March Gerry Keenan of the Irish Chamber Orchestra asked him to do Shostakovich's First Piano Concerto, the one with the big obligato part for trumpet that was written in 1933, three years before the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk brought the composer public humiliation in Pravda, the newspaper of the Soviet Union's Communist Party.


Garvey says, “I was delighted, thinking who knows when I’ll ever play with an orchestra again. I hadn’t played it before, but I had four weeks to crack down and learn it. We did all the rehearsals and, literally the day before the performance Covid reared its ugly head, and that project got canned.” Without taking a breath, he adds, “But they will reschedule.”

He runs what he calls “a little festival in London,” Classical Vauxhall, with this year’s concerts streamed in March. “Obviously it’s not the same without an audience. But at least you have work and you’re also providing employment to other musicians. I know myself as a freelance, it’s either that or you have no work at all. Everyone wants to have an audience back. But we also need to pay our rent.”    The one topic he brings up with a touch of bleakness is the effect of social distancing on audience sizes, not least because of the effect it could have on his West Wicklow Chamber Music Festival, where the concerts are given in Russborough House outside Blessington, as well as in the town itself.

Audience and masks

“In the room in Russborough House we usually fit about a hundred people in. With social distancing we’d have about 10 people. Financially, we just couldn’t afford to put a concert on for 10 people.”

Yet he's also "very optimistic" that "by the end of this year things will be a lot, lot better. I wouldn't mind wearing a mask forever in public if it meant we could move on from social distancing and have large numbers in the concert hall again, for example." And he's going to have an early foretaste of the future he longs for. He's giving a concert with mezzo-soprano Rachel Kelly at London's Wigmore Hall in June, "and that's supposed to be with audience. I don't know what numbers will be allowed. But it is with audience."

Unusually for an interview, all of this comes out without my having to ask a single question. The first on my list had nothing to do with concerts or Covid, but about his description of himself as a “Pianist/Farmer”. It’s there right at the top of his Twitter page. “The busy times on the farm would be lambing, dipping and then, maybe, harvest time. If I’ve got free periods in my schedule I’d always head back home and help my dad with those jobs, because I genuinely really enjoy it. I grew up with that. It’s something I’ve always done.”

Last month, of course, his concentration was on Shostakovich. “I couldn’t help my dad at all, because I had so much going on.” He compares farming to the place of hobbies or sport in other people’s lives, “whether it’s helping my dad spread dung on the land, or calve a cow, or any of those things I just love doing. An outdoor life is really healthy. Mentally, physically, it’s just a lovely way of life. It’s not like I split my time between farming and music in a conscious sense. But when I have time, it’s something I love to do.”

When I tell him that I spent a summer working on a farm that had no tractor, he interjects, “We don’t own one either, because all our fields are like mountain slopes. So everything we do is pretty much by hand as well. We’ll have to bring you up to the farm and put you to work some day!”

Feis Ceoil

Sure enough, in no time at all, we find ourselves back at the weather again, this time from the perspective of farming. The list of competitors for piano competitions at the Feis Ceoil in Dublin can be very long, with shortlisted players getting to perform a second time. His performances were sometimes separated by trips home to deal with ewes lambing or heifers calving. “We’d be dealing with all of that, and have to drive back and I’d play the Ginastera Sonata or something in the evening. I wouldn’t change that for the world. Everyone’s experience makes them who they are. Right? I never looked enviously at anyone who lived closer to the halls in the RDS.”

He doesn’t worry about the risk to his hands. “It comes down to technique, just like technique with your instrument. I know how to catch a sheep safely. I know how to restrain a calf safely. So the chances of me injuring my hands in those situations is much less than if you were to ask a 33 year old who’s never caught a sheep before to catch sheep. They might end up injuring an arm. You’re never 100 per cent safe, but there are techniques that mitigate the risk.” It’s no coincidence that his London festival is in Vauxhall. Vauxhall City Farm – “within earshot of Big Ben and in the shadow of MI6” according to its website – is something that makes him feel fully at home in the centre of London. “The most lovely thing ever,” he says.

Garvey is not someone who felt predestined to be a performer. He was introduced to classical music by kindly neighbours, Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. And he hedged his bets by taking a one-year course at the Royal Irish Academy of Music while also pursuing veterinary studies. It was so exhausting he had the shocking experience of actually falling asleep at the wheel of his car, fortunately without having an actual crash. If the car hadn’t steered towards the crash barrier, he says, “I could have been a goner.”

Music was his choice, “and I haven’t really looked back since. Though there’s nothing stopping me, when I’m 60, going back and finishing my veterinary degree if I want to. Giving myself the freedom to never feel I’m a prisoner to any one career is very liberating for me. That’s just how I live.”

Staging a festival

So how did the West Wicklow Chamber Music Festival come about? “From when I was a teenager I always had this idea I’d like to put on a festival of some kind in Wicklow. The older I got the more I felt, God, there’s nothing on our doorstep here in Wicklow. I was playing at a festival in Spoleto in Italy, and I met a guy who might have been a year or two younger than me, and he was running a festival over there. That made me a bit guilty about thinking it was something to do when I’m older.” At “26 or 27” he decided “now is the time to do it”.

He “just jumped into it” and talks about, “the amount I’ve learned on a business or structural level about what it takes to set up a company limited by guarantee, why you would choose to be a charity, what all the conditions are. I’ve gone on such a journey. I feel I’ve done a business masters without actually having to pay the money to do. And from the artistic side, we all as freelancers spend our time sending emails asking people to employ us, or being approached to play very specific repertoire. What’s been really liberating about running a festival is that you get to make those choices yourself. If there’s a work you’ve wanted to play for a long time, you can programme it. There’s a great licence to be experimental. You can invite people you’ve met abroad.

“We started off with three concerts. It was a great success. Next year we added in an educational element with the National Concert Hall. In 2019, we expanded again, and went from a Wednesday to a Sunday and had composition workshops in some local schools, and also some master classes.”

The eight concerts of this year's West Wicklow Chamber Music Festival run between Thursday, May 20th, and Monday, June 14th. The opening and closing concerts feature Garvey with Rachel Kelly and will include a new work by Linda Buckley. There are programmes from two violin and piano duos (Rosanne Philippens with Julien Quentin and Phoebe White with Peter Regan), guitarist Sean Shibe, Quatuor Van Kuijk, cello and piano duo Jama Aliyev and Sam Armstrong, and the Sitkovetsky Trio.

The programme is entirely online, and because of extra funding from the Arts Council, entirely free, though donations are both welcome and encouraged. And, positive as ever, Garvey says the cancelled 2020 programme will get delivered in the future.

Full information on