by Daniel Hathaway

MacMaster-&-Leahy“Never work with children or animals,” said W.C. Fields. Good advice — unless of course you have such a reliable brood as Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy, who closed the first half of their sold-out concert at the Cleveland Museum of Art on Friday evening with an adorable parade of child fiddlers, beginning with 4-year-old Clare, then 6-year-old Michael, then 7-year-old Mary Frances, and eventually a cameo by 2-year-old Julia, who didn’t fiddle but gamely joined in a step dance. (1-year-old Alec stayed behind, while a sixth MacMaster-Leahy protègé was definitely involved in the show but hasn’t been born yet).

That gesture reflects the wholesome, family-values nature of MacMaster’s and Leahy’s show in Gartner Auditorium on November 15, an engaging, 2-1/2 hour festival of Cape Breton-infused music that took traditional fiddling to new heights of sophistication while preserving its down-home charm. At the beginning, MacMaster quipped that this was their last stop on a 12-city tour, “so you got us fresh,” and later narrated a long but charming account of how she and her future husband met.

More modestly produced than MacMaster’s “Christmas in Cape Breton,” which played at the museum in 2011, this year’s performance might easily have taken place in a church hall in Nova Scotia. In addition to MacMaster and Leahy (and their excellent offspring), there were only two other musicians: pianist Mac Morin and Scottish guitarist and accordionist Tim Edey. Lighting was restrained — only a bit of color wash and spotlight pools to create intimacy — and amplification was mostly minimal. The point of the evening was fiddling — and dancing (amazingly, both MacMaster and Leahy can do both at once, and did.)

The couple claim that they play in very different styles, but you have to listen very carefully to spot differences. Leahy is a powerful player with a killer bow arm (a trait he obviously has passed down to his kids), but MacMaster holds her own very handily, thanks to her own potent technique and an oversized fiddle. Whether in solos (Leahy’s Fiddler’s Despair or MacMaster’s Professor Blackie), duets or fiddling duels (like Clogs Medleys), the two created mesmerizing, high-energy takes on traditional tunes and changed things up nicely for slower, moodier pieces like Gypsy Boy. The two have come very close to realizing their goal of melding styles, creating a “marriage in music,” as they called it.

Mac Morin and Tim Edey each had their own solo slot in the second half of the evening. Morin, an experienced step dancer, also contributed a few fancy footwork interludes, while Edey, having fun with his choreographic moment, put together a routine that resembled the long jump at a track meet. Elsewhere, Edey laid down his guitar and picked up an accordion to add another color to the program’s palette — a sound we’d liked to have heard more often.

The crowd called for more after the finale, St. Ann’s Reel, and received an energetic encore (Olympic Reel) in return.

Published on ClevelandClassical.com November 19, 2013

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