It all started with free school lunches. “That was the perk on offer if you enrolled at the specialist music unit at Douglas Academy,” says 23-year-old Ryan Corbett. Bemused by this wholesome incitement, the then 12-year-old applied and was duly accepted into the Milngavie school’s prestigious centre of excellence, where initial tuition in piano and violin was eventually to give way to his consuming passion for the classical accordion.
“I'd already been teaching myself to play Scottish music on a small traditional accordion we had at home, given to us by a friend,” he recalls. “Gradually I was spending more time on that than on the other instruments. I kept asking the school for lessons, but it wasn’t until I was 14 that another accordionist joined and they were forced to get us a teacher.”
Nine years on, Corbett is now one of the classical instrument’s most exciting rising stars, with key festival appearances, international competition success, and a coveted BBC Radio 3 award already under his belt.
We’re speaking in a quiet corner of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland where he has spent the past five years honing his exceptional skills, first as an undergraduate, now adding the final polish to his playing as a post-graduate. Why stay so close to home, given the limitless study opportunities surely available to him elsewhere?
He cites his mentor, Djordje Gajic, the Serbian-born RCS accordion professor who immediately introduced Corbett to the classical-styled instrument at Douglas and has guided him through his school years – including a later spell at St Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh – and now at the Conservatoire. “I did consider going elsewhere, but Djordje and I have had such a good working relationship, and I still feel I have so much to learn here,” he insists.
What distinguishes Corbett from his peers is that he’s already well on his way to a successful career. How many college students can boast a concert diary that, in 2022 alone, included major solo and duo appearances (with Gajic) at the Lammermuir, St Magnus, Paxton and Bath festivals, alongside key recital dates at Perth Concert Hall and Musselburgh’s Brunton Theatre?
Also in September, a year after winning the coveted Gold Medal in the 2021 Royal Overseas League (ROSL) Annual Music Competition, Corbett became the first ever accordionist to win a place on BBC Radio 3’s New Generation Artists Scheme. It had immediate spin-offs. “I found myself doing outside broadcasts for the BBC Breakfast Show beside the freezing canal at Fort Augustus, and in the Spiegeltent at the Edinburgh Festival,” he says.
Things are certain to hot up even more in 2023. In February Corbett performs solo as part of a new year-round recital initiative by the Cumnock Tryst Festival, while the following month he joins forces with Gajic again for an American universities tour that takes the duo to Delaware and Virginia. There are numerous other dates throughout the UK, including the Ryedale and Norwich & Norfolk festivals, plus a return to St Magnus where Corbett strikes up a new duo partnership with Scottish-Nigerian trumpeter Aaron Akugpo.
This is also the year his BBC programme, which extends to 2024, really matters, with studio recording sessions and live broadcasts high on the agenda. “You can’t record the same piece twice, so I’ll need to learn a lot of new repertoire,” he acknowledges. There’s the prospect, too, of concerto dates with the BBC orchestras, and the possible commissioning of new works. “I’m also looking forward to collaborating with other New Generation artists.” Beyond that, Corbett has his 2024 Wigmore Hall debut to look forward to.
There is, he believes, a real need to cultivate new repertoire for the instrument. “But it’s not an easy instrument to write for.” That hasn’t stopped him asking Sir James MacMillan. “We had a conversation and he told me he’s terrified of writing for the accordion.”
Where he has made inroads with repertoire is in his duo collaboration with Gajic, which most famously features their own show-stopping transcriptions of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella and Bach’s St Anne Prelude and Fugue. “I especially enjoy playing music written before the accordion was even invented,” he adds. Contributing to the Scotsman Sessions video series a year ago, he performed a sizzling Scarlatti arrangement that had just won him the ROSL Gold Medal.
Looking to the future, he insists he has “no specific check list”. Who would when the gigs are piling up? “Whatever I do, I want to play good music and make the instrument itself more of a regular visitor to concert halls. People still come up to me and say they’ve never heard music like this on an accordion. It’s important to go beyond the novelty factor.”
And yes, when time allows he’s available for the odd ceilidh: “I can still remember all the traditional dances. I love it!”