Meet the Artist – Iain Farrington, pianist, organist, composer, arranger

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

My family owned an old upright piano that had belonged to my grandparents. It was brilliant to muck around on, and I remember trying to play some TV themes: I got quite good at Grange Hill. There was quite a lot of music at home, as my two older brothers also learned the piano and we all sang in the local church choir, along with my Dad. Although, I did find dressing up in a cassock quite funny. I had really good teachers who were disciplined, while letting me do my own thing. When I was 11, my state school put on Britten’s Noye’s Fludde, and that was an incredible experience, even though I was only a badly behaved squirrel. A few years later I heard a recording of Debussy’s Prelude a’apres-midi d’un faune, which opened my ears to how sensuous and sexy music could be, and sent my teenage hormones through the roof. I then devoured music at the piano, mostly borrowing scores from the library.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career both as a performer and a composer?

There’s such a huge range of good music from across the centuries that I love, and nearly of it shares the same philosophy: that music’s essentials (melody, harmony, rhythm, texture, structure) can combine into something that reflects our lives. This shapes my work in what I play and compose/arrange. Making music should also be part of a community, and it can be linked with popular and folk styles while maintaining strength and depth. That’s one of the great legacies of people like Benjamin Britten and Percy Grainger, and their music is a big influence in different ways. Jazz has always had a big impact too, especially the composer/ arrangers like Duke Ellington, Gil Evans, Nelson Riddle, or Leonard Bernstein’s fusion of styles. It shows us that music can be dangerous, dirty, brash and raunchy as well.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Self-motivation: maintaining a belief that what you’re doing is worthwhile in a crazy and complicated world, especially during periods of depression. This seems to become harder the older I get.

Which performances/recordings/compositions are you most proud of?

There are so many things I’m lucky to have been involved with, as a performer, composer and arranger. Some of the orchestral pieces I’ve written for the BBC Proms are a highlight: ‘Wing It’ in 2012, ‘Gershwinicity’ in 2018. The ongoing Scary Fairy orchestral fairytale series is a lot of fun, with Craig Charles narrating his poetry. There’s also a concert of orchestral folk song arrangements with the singer Sam Lee, playing jazz songs with Jacqui Dankworth, recording Elgar’s 2nd Symphony on the piano, choral concerts, chamber music… too much to list. And I guess playing the piano at the London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony: my Mum died of cancer that morning and I managed to hold it together, even though I was in the middle of having a complete emotional breakdown.

As a performer, how do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

When I do get the chance to choose, it’s always a very eclectic mixture of music, linked thematically in some way. I generally try and get in a new piece or arrangement of some kind, maybe something entertaining. After all, a concert can be fun too.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

Although it’s a bonkers barn of a place, playing at the Royal Albert Hall in the Proms always feels like a bit of a party. Playing the organ there can be a ridiculous ego trip.

As a composer, how do you work?

I do get tunes or harmonies that pop into my head, often as I’m just about to fall asleep, which can sometimes be a nuisance. Normally I throw all the ideas together by improvising at the piano, singing along at the top of my voice. This is scribbled down on semi-legible manuscript, worked at and crossed out until I’ve got a full complete draft. Then I typeset it on Sibelius software, so that I can actually read it.

How would you describe your compositional style/language?

There’s often a lot of jazz styles in there: swing, funk, blues and others, mixed with classical structures and colourful tonal harmonies. Clear melodies and strong rhythms play a big part too. Most of the time, the music is about our life experiences and emotions: joy, sadness, love, loss.

Tell us more about your new piano series……

I’m putting on A Mahler Piano Series at the 1901 Arts Club in London, in eleven weekly concerts. It features a wide variety of musical styles that influenced Gustav Mahler, as well as the bulk of his symphonic music arranged for solo piano. He played his symphonies on the piano to friends and accompanied singers on the piano, so it’s a recreation of those experiences in an intimate salon venue from the period. It’s about putting his music in the context of the European musical melting pot of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including folksongs, country dances, waltzes, klezmer, Jewish music, military marches, operetta, popular and salon music classical composers including Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner, a concert of works by female composers and the music of contemporaries such as Busoni and Schoenberg. I’m joined by some wonderful singers as well, so it will be a pretty epic adventure.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

As an audience member it was actually at the ballet, the first time I saw The Rite of Spring danced by English National Ballet. I was hyperventilating by the end.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

In a way, any musician that can make a living as a performer is a success, especially while trying to raise a family. Beyond that, I think anyone that can find new and inspiring ways to connect with audiences is doing it right. Giving people life-enhancing experiences outside of the mainstream is vital, including going into schools, hospitals, prisons.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Be versatile, work hard and try to stay as positive as you can. We’re pretty lucky to be doing this, when you think about it.

What is your present state of mind?

Buzzing like a beehive.

‘A Mahler Piano Series’ is at the 1901 Arts Club, London from September 12th to November 21st 2018. Full details and tickets


Iain Farrington has an exceptionally busy and diverse career as a pianist, organist, composer and arranger. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music, London and at Cambridge University. He has made numerous recordings, and has broadcast on BBC Television, Classic FM and BBC Radio 3. Through his multi-faceted work as a musician, he aims to bring live music to as wide an audience as possible. Iain’s concert programmes often mix popular and jazz elements into the traditional Classical repertoire. His many chamber orchestral arrangements allow large-scale works to be presented on an affordable smaller scale, and his compositions range from virtuoso display pieces to small works for beginner instrumentalists.

As a solo pianist, accompanist, chamber musician and organist, Iain has performed at all the major UK venues and abroad in the USA, Japan, Mexico, South Africa, Malaysia, Hong Kong and all across Europe. He has worked with many of the country’s leading musicians, including Bryn Terfel, Sir Paul McCartney and Lesley Garrett. Iain played the piano at the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics with Rowan Atkinson, the London Symphony Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle, broadcast to a global audience of around a billion viewers. With Counterpoise he has worked with numerous singers and actors, including Sir John Tomlinson, Sir Willard White, Jacqui Dankworth and Eleanor Bron. As a session pianist, Iain has recorded numerous film and TV soundtracks for Hollywood, Disney and independent productions. His solo organ performance in the Proms 2007 on the Royal Albert Hall organ was critically acclaimed, and he performed his Animal Parade in 2015 at the Royal Festival Hall organ for a family concert. Iain was Organ Scholar at St John’s College, Cambridge University, and Organ Scholar at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle.

Iain is a prolific composer and arranger, and has made hundreds of arrangements ranging from operas to piano pieces. He has composed two 40 minute Scary Fairy orchestral works combining poems by Craig Charles with a continuous full score, first performed and broadcast on BBC Radio 2 ‘Friday Night is Music Night’ with the BBC Philharmonic. For the BBC Proms he composed an orchestral work Gershwinicity in 2018, A Shipshape Shindig in 2017, a jazz guide to the orchestra Wing It, and a Double Violin Concerto, in 2012 for the Wallace and Gromit Prom. Iain’s choral work The Burning Heavens was nominated for a British Composer Award in 2010. He has made arrangements in many styles, including traditional African songs, Berlin cabaret, folk, klezmer, jazz and pop. Iain is the Arranger in Residence for the Aurora Orchestra who have performed and recorded his compositions and arrangements, including all the songs for the Horrible Histories Prom in 2011. His organ arrangement of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 5 was performed at the 2011 Royal Wedding in Westminster Abbey.

iainfarrington.com