Celtic Pops Encore
at Strathspey Place,
Mabou, NS
(19 October 2003)

The first performance of this concert played in Glace Bay on Oct. 12, but I didn't see it. The second performance is in Strathspey Place, Inverness County, and the house is full this warm autumn evening. The Cape Breton Chamber Orchestra has top billing and I wonder if anyone else is curious to hear Cape Breton music served up by a chamber orchestra.

Traditional players like Buddy MacMaster, Dave MacIsaac and J.P. Cormier are on the program, and they have all mixed things up with classical players many times before. But CDs like Dave Greenberg's Bach Meets Cape Breton and Scott Macmillan and Jennyfer Brickenden's Celtic Mass for the Sea were about the extent of my exposure. I hadn't paid a lot of attention to this style of presenting Cape Breton music.

I look over the program sheet and find something familiar, something I could use as a gauge. Tunes by Judique's own Dan R. MacDonald are featured in the first group of the second half and I'll be able to tell if this tweaks my fancy or not. And I'll try to imagine what Dan R.'s comments would be if he was sitting beside me listening to the whole thing.

On stage, the empty chairs for the Cape Breton Chamber Orchestra are stained by black shadows and light from the sheet stands. Three chairs sit at the centre fore, and a wooden conductor's box lies right behind them. Conductor Laura Mercer steps on stage, barefoot, and leads the group through flowing sounds that are lightly Celtic -- and there I am, instantly part of a windy black night on a sandy beach where waves crash on a rocky shoal, at a place untamed by currents and winds but a safe haven nevertheless. I am swept away by this piece, "Cape Breton Moments" as arranged by Howard Cable, and I expect it leads many others to remember their own special Cape Breton moments.

Scott Macmillan takes a turn on the conductor's stand and begins "Cape Breton Sunrise." Gracefully, the sound hesitates and moves onward, and I imagine fingers of glorious colour spreading into wide rays of golden promise. For a while I am the sun opening a fresh new day over a wee speck of an island bobbing in the blue waves far below. A really nice surprise is the accordion piece, just amazing.

Mary Jane Lamond is, as always, in strong Gaelic voice. Buddy MacMaster and Joey Beaton deliver a flawless set, and Buddy thinks they're finished until the chamber begins another tune and we see Buddy mentally searching his repertoire until the light goes on and he realizes it's "Happy Birthday" -- to him on his 79th. Much laughter, a big cake and candles follow.

Dave MacIsaac and J.P. Cormier each have a set with the orchestra. Dave's fiddle is sweet and mellow, producing very fine music, and Dave's all suited up and looking great. J.P. says he really can't believe he's awake and on stage at 3:30 in the afternoon, but shows his multi-stringed talent by taking a turn with five or more instruments in the stand in front of him. What's so impressive is not that he plays them but how skillfully he plays them.

Second set. This is what I'm waiting for. Scott Macmillan talks to the audience a bit putting the music into context for us and I really appreciate that but, OK, here comes Dan R.'s stuff. And I'm looking at my notes here, and I'm thinking of the animated Cinderella movie. Maybe it's the horns behind the fiddles? It's a perfect piece for Cinderella's mice as they help her prepare for the ball. Also, shades of Sylvester & Tweety; I'm not sure why I get these impressions but music can be such a visual thing for me and that's what came up. I think Dan R. would have been impressed. I'm sure he would have been flattered. And I think Macmillan has a great sense of musical humour.

What I thought was the biggest treat of the night was 17-year-old Meghan Keating, the young first-fiddler in the orchestra. She's a very talented musician and I expect we'll be hearing a lot more from her in the future.

This afternoon concert was chock-full of music; rich and romantic, fancy and homey, and I think it opened up new and little traveled avenues for musicians and composers. Hats off to the Celtic Colours' organizers for putting this one together and for bringing it over to the western coast! It's these bright flashes of innovation mingling with a traditional backdrop that keeps this international festival so intriguing and able to serve up fabulous concerts year after year.

- Rambles
written by Virginia MacIsaac
published 21 February 2004