It was MacBreton night at the Symphony Nova Scotia concert in the Rebecca Cohn on Friday. Three Macs were in charge of the entertainment: Fiddle phantom Ashley MacIsaac, guitar picker Scott Macmillan and, on the podium, Martin MacDonald, SNS’s resident conductor.
Capable hands, you have to admit. With help of Gaelic singer Mary Jane Lamond and bagpiper Scott Long, the orchestra unwrapped their considerable fiddle chops for two hours of flying bows, bouncy tunes and stomping feet – not theirs, of course, symphony musicians do not stomp, but everyone else did. And especially MacIsaac, who leads with a right foot when he plays a tune, leaning slightly forward and stomping it hard while he fiddles left-handed with unbelievable precision, speed and savage energy.
MacIsaac came on only after intermission following a short first half. He delivered a program of jigs, reels, slow airs and strathspeys, opening with a set of pipe tunes called simply Hard At The Jigs which he played in unison with piper Long.
The room seems to elevate two inches off the ground whenever MacIsaac plays. He charges through a set of tunes, fusing each to the next without letup, generating adrenalin and tuning the nerves till your whole body sings like electricity in a high voltage power line.
He slowed down to play a sentimental air called My Mother after cracking wise (Oh my mother, Oh how I love her, Some day I’m gonna shove her, Right over the cliff), and gave the lie to the lyric by playing the slow air with intense expressivity and a narrow, frail vibrato shivering through his richly resonant sound. For Spoon Dance he cracked jokes, handed out Dollar Store spoons to members of the audience to play while Terry O’Mahoney demonstrated the technique at the front of the stage.
On the first half, MacDonald led the orchestra through a suite of seven very pretty Scottish tunes, lightly and tastefully orchestrated by English composer William Alwyn.
Mary Jane Lamond came on next for three signature Gaelic songs beginning with E Horo and continuing with A Mhairi Bhoidheach and Bodach beag a’Loinean. She sang with even more powerful resonance, her voice having deepened in vibrancy over the years. She is in better voice than ever.
Those Gaelic melodies are so beautifully clear and sweet, you want to hear her singing them without accompaniment or with just a single guitar line. But even though it didn’t happen, the cushion of warm sound coming from the orchestral strings treated those precious tunes with tenderness.
The orchestra played An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise by England’s Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. No mere arrangement of tunes, or imitative medley, this was a strikingly original piece with the smell of the sea and the heather in it, orchestrated with astonishing imagination and resource. The bagpipe came in at the end to take the piece over the top, and it ended in a roar of enthusiasm from the packed house.
Before the end of the concert, Lamond joined MacIsaac on stage for their hit song of the mid-90s, Sleepy Maggie. Then MacIsaac, Macmillan, MacDonald and Co. took the fans on a wild roller-coaster ride through Tullochgorum.