Natalie MacMaster, husband bring first co-tour to town

Natalie MacMaster returns to the Phillips Center on Saturday in a performance also spotlighting her husband, Donnell Leahy.

Special to the Sun
Published: Thursday, January 21, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 20, 2010 at 12:12 p.m.

After wowwing a Phillips Center audience three years ago, the acclaimed fiddler/dancer Natalie MacMaster returns Saturday in a performance that also spotlights her most-special collaborator: husband Donnell Leahy.


Natalie MacMaster, Donnell Leahy

What: Husband-and-wife Celtic fiddlers perform
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, 315 Hull Road, Gainesville
Tickets: $22-$37
Info: 392-2787

And it will be among the first such performances in the U.S. by the virtuoso performers who, along with being the parents of three young children, also are considered celebrity recording artists and entertainers in their own right.

"This is our very first tour together," MacMaster says in a phone interview Friday. "We've done maybe a dozen shows together, so not a lot in seven years (of marriage). But we've never done a tour together before."

Donnell Leahy is best known as the lead fiddler of Leahy, the Canadian group formed by Donnell Leahy and his seven siblings.

The band Leahy is the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary ("The Leahys: Music Most of All") as well as three PBS specials. Raised on an Ontario farm by their fiddling father and champion Irish step-dancer mother, they quickly became favorites on the Canadian festival circuit for their original songs, whirlwind step dancing and proficiency in a broad range of instruments and folk genres.

Not to be outdone, MacMaster has recorded 10 albums while acquiring numerous Juno (the Grammy of Canada) awards, multiple gold albums, three honorary degrees and the Order of Canada.

In the U.S., she has performed for millions on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," "Late Night with Conan O'Brien," "Good Morning America" and other programs. She also is featured prominently on classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma's "Songs of Joy and Peace" album and is a frequent guest instructor at master violinist Mark O'Connor's camp. Her impassioned jigs, reels, waltzes and strathspeys also have led her to collaborate with artists from Faith Hill to Luciano Pavarotti, and from Paul Simon to Carlos Santana.

MacMaster is today's best-known interpreter of Cape Breton fiddling, the infectious Scottish derivative within her native Nova Scotia.

"It's a hand-me-down tradition that's been passed down through generations and generations, and it's just very pure," MacMaster says. (Ethnomusicologists often consider Scottish musical traditions to be more authentically preserved on the relatively isolated Cape Breton, an island in northern Nova Scotia, than within Scotland itself.)

"The Cape Breton style that I play, the fiddle music from there is very strong - its strongest quality I think is the rhythm," she says. "It's a deep groove that is really addictive and almost puts you in a trance. It grabs you and it doesn't let go.

"Its rhythms come from the dancing; it's dance music," she continues. "The traditional Cape Breton style of dance has been partnered with the fiddle music for forever. A sign of a good fiddler is one who can accompany the dance and keep the beat. That's why the very deep groove of the music stays."

Anyone who has ever seen MacMaster perform knows her trademark: to fiddle and step-dance simultaneously.

"I was in a group with six other fiddlers, and we were giving shows together in our teenage years," MacMaster explains. "And we decided, wouldn't it be cool - because we all fiddled and we all danced - let's do it at the same time. And we practiced, and we did.

"That was back when I was 16, and here I am 37 years old and I'm still doing it cause it works. People love it.

"We both step dance in the show," she says. Comparable to American tap dancing, MacMaster's Cape Breton-style step dancing is looser, more relaxed and closer to the floor than the perhaps more familiar Irish step dance.

"Donnell's dancing and fiddling is much more refined and technical," she says. "Donnell is the fiery, intense, worldly performer. He has this sound that is incredibly practiced. He has honed this so much, and he's just so good."

MacMaster shares the spouses' challenge in joining their differing techniques and stylistic approaches onstage.

"It's kind of tricky; it's something that doesn't come naturally," she says. "We found that there needs to be a lot of work in the arrangements to complement our two styles and not just sort of walk all over them. So we do a lot of harmonizing and counterpoint and moments of playing alone, so we're supporting and showcasing one another while we're performing together.

"I deliver a more comfortable sound; he delivers a more impressive sound. So, yeah, it's a good combination. We're all about presenting to the public a great live performance, really. It's only as good as the people think it is, so we definitely do deliver a lot of punch and pow and pizzazz to what we perform."

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