Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Symphony Nova Scotia and Natalie MacMaster: a celebration of Cape Breton music and more

Symphony Nova Scotia is marking its 40th anniversary this 2023/2024 season.

As part of the celebration, they have invited longtime friend Cape Breton fiddle player and composer Natalie MacMaster back for two concerts in Halifax in late September to open the autumn schedule.

Perhaps you might associate Symphony Nova Scotia with classical music -- and rightly so, they’ll close the season in May with music director Holly Mathieson conducting Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, for example-- but the talented musicians of the symphony regularly venture into other repertoire, especially from artists and sorts of music which make up the many strands of Nova’s Scotia’s heritage abd present day ranging from Afro-Cuban to jazz to the sounds oc Cape Breton.

Natalie MacMaster knows those Cape Breton sounds well; she grew up in Cape Breton, step dancing to the music early on and taking up the fiddle at age nine. She released her first album when she was sixteen, and has been recognized with Grammys and many other awards.

“ I heard my uncles play, I heard my aunts sing, I heard my cousins play,” MacMaster said. ” I come from a big family, a musical family. It was part of life.”

Those sounds of Cape Breton music, which can range from fiery to gentle, draw on the music which people from Scotland brought with them across the waters. That is the heart of the music MacMaster makes, but like the musicians of Symphony Nova Scotia. she enjoys taking that musical perspective into conversation with other sorts of music.

One place that is evident is in MacMaster’s most recent album Canvas, a duo project with her husband Donnell Leahy. Over the years the two have worked out ways to bring her Cape Breton style and his fiddle playing from Ontario into creative collaboration; this is their third album together.

With unexpected time away from their busy touring schedules during the pandemic they let the music lead them into tunes which are rgounded in their distinctive creative styles, while exploring music which includes flavors of jazz, the music of Ireland, Scottish Gaelic song, bluegrass, and classical cello among others. Several pieces from Canvas will be part of MacMaster’s concerts with Symphony Nova Scotia, along with others from across her repertoire.

What is it like for an artist from a folk tradition to work with an orchestra? “There are charts -- I work with a great arranger, Becca Pellett -- lots of charts,” MacMaster said.

It’s the work of an arranger to plan ways the different artists, instruments, and sections of musicians in an orchestra frame and support a guest musicians’s work. Charts communicate this.

The physical experience is a bit different too “It’s different, being out in front of the musicians and communicating with them through the conductor, instead of how I do with my band on tour on when I go back home to Cape Breton to play a square dance. It’s a whole different way of communicating, a whole different way of organization.”

MacMaster has often worked with orchestras in her career. When she returns to Halifax to appear with Symphony Nova Scotia, it holds an additional resonace, though.

Symphony Nova Scotia was the very first orchestra I’d ever played with,” she recalled. “ I was in my early twenties at the time. I’d never even been to a symphony performance before and when I was invited to do that I was invited to do that I thought: I have arrived!” she said, laughing.

Scott Macmillan will conduct Symphony Nova Scotia for MacMaster’s shows. He was the conductor and arranger for those first concerts as well. “In 1995, the Symphony, Natalie, and I shared music across Nova Scotia on a fantastic tour,” Macmillan said. “We’re going to pick up right were we left off!”

For two evenings at the beginning of Symphony Nova Scotia’s 40th anniversary season and with MacMaster’s return to join them, excitement and expectation will be high on all sides, and it’s sure to be a fine pair of evenings for those on stage and those who come to listen.

At this writing tickets are still available. The concerts take place on 28 and 29 September.

You may also wish to see

Symphony Nova Scotia’s website where you may find information about schedules, tickets, the symphony’s musicians, and a 40th anniversary book for which MacMaster wrote a forward. You may also explore video recordings of small ensembles of symphony musicians supporting guest artists made during the pandemic.

Natalie MacMaster’s website where you will find information about her tour schedule including her upcoming family Christmas tour, and all her recordings. For one of those tour dates, Natlaaie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy are set to take part in the closing concert of the Celtic Colours International Festival in October; no guarantees, but there’s a good chance that concert will be livestreamed.

Natalie MacMaster’s album Sketches
Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy: One
Leahy Live in Gatineau
Cape BretonMusic: essentials for exploring
Nicola Benedetti: Homecoming: Scottish classical violinist bridges classical and folk genres with collaboration from Scotland musicians Julie Fowlis, Duncan Chisholm, and others

Photograph of Symphony Nova Scotia courtesy of the Symphony; photographs of Natalie Macmaster by Rebekah Littlejohn

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