Since the invention of the violin in 1555, string music has earned an air of sophistication and class. But with the expansion of string music into more interpretive styles, like fiddle and swing, it has become increasingly possible to combine individualized ornamentation with the rich class and history of the four-string violin.
On March 5, the fiddling duo of Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy performed at the Lied Center for Performing Arts in what was dubbed "A Celtic Celebration." Joined by their gifted children, the group gave a jubilant, high-energy performance that could make even the most musically inept listeners reel and jig in cut time.
The stage was set up simply with a grand piano, two guitar stands and an elevated drum set. After the background instrumentalists came on stage, MacMaster and Leahy appeared with wide smiles and excited demeanors.
Before their marriage in 2002, MacMaster of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, and Leahy of Lakefield, Ontario, were both hailed as Celtic music powerhouses in their own rights. But since then, their careers have become intertwined as they travel internationally, performing alongside their six children who are also well versed in Celtic fiddle and Irish step dancing.
The beginning of the show was kicked off by MacMaster and Leahy performing a jaunty number with their band, which consisted of electric and acoustic guitar, drums, piano and bass guitar.
Together, the two musicians wove together notes of contemporary fiddle with traditional Celtic in a lighthearted way that had the audience clapping along. The two danced around stage with big smiles and a carefree energy, at times tossing the melody to and fro between them, all to pick it up once more in harmonized bliss.
Just within the first song, MacMaster and Leahy’s individual styles meshed seamlessly into the set. Both instrumentalists played with their own spin on fiddle music — MacMaster sticking to a more traditional tone and Leahy combining other musical influences.
After the first song, the two split up and gave their own separate performances consisting of a few songs apiece.
MacMaster played on her own first, incorporating repetitious themes and Irish step dancing into her set during breaks. Her distinct sound of traditionally influenced Celtic fiddle cut through the air with lengthy vibrato and interpreted slides. The set was made even more impressive with her frenetic step dancing that added a dynamic atmosphere of excitement and artistry.
After MacMaster’s set, her husband followed, starting out with a well-humored, scratchy rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Leahy then launched into a French-influenced number, which he said he transposed from an accordian player in his hometown.
Leahy gave a musical performance that was frenzied and passionate. His playing style of short staccato notes as opposed to his wife’s clear legato strokes created a balanced juxtaposition of traditional and contemporary stylistic blends that added dimension throughout the performance.
A little more than halfway through the performance, the two came back together to play a few reels, then were joined by their adorable and talented children with their own tiny violins in tow. The first to walk onto the stage was their 11-year-old son, Michael, followed by the two oldest daughters, Mary Francis and Julia. Together, the family played a lively and entertaining piece made even more so by the step-dance-virtuoso children.
Immediately following intermission, MacMaster and Leahy were again accompanied by Julia and Mary Francis, who sang together in angelic simplicity as their parents played behind them. After the performance put on by the kids, MacMaster and Leahy volleyed a variety of energetic celtic arrangements to end the night with an exuberance that moved the audience to a standing ovation.
This incredibly talented family created a cheerful atmosphere without trading sophistication for fun. The effervescence of the music, combined with the passionate yet relaxed air that each performer projected, created an atmosphere of joy and whimsy for the audience.