Pianos du Jour
at UCCB Boardmore Playhouse,
Cape Breton, NS
(12 October 2004)

When this year's schedule for the Celtic Colours festival was released, I was quite pleased to notice that the piano concert was back. Several years ago, I had attended this concert and was pleasantly surprised at its content. I highly recommended the piano concert as a must-see for fans of Celtic music with a Cape Breton flair. This year's concert, Piano's du Jour, did nothing to change my mind.

The piano concert is unique, in that an instrument that is normally viewed as accompaniment for great fiddle tunes, suddenly becomes the focus of all the attention. Rightfully so, in my opinion. Our "piano accompanists," as they are often called, are far more than that, and are more than capable of entertaining audiences on their own. David Milligan, Mac Morin, Ryan MacNeil, Troy MacGillivray, Tracey Dares and Kimberley Fraser provided the audience with a wonderful evening of entertainment and some fantastic tunes.

The first half of the show featured the artists each playing a set or two on their own. Hearing the pianists go solo is a real treat, in my view. Most often, when one hears these talented musicians play, it is in the role of accompaniment for someone else. We hear the chords and the rhythms, with an occasional harmony or melody here and there, but the focus is on the lead instrument. It's nice to see the rest of the picture. Troy started off the concert with a great set. He has a wonderful percussive quality to his playing, with clear precision to the melodies. Kimberley followed with a hornpipe/reel set and a lovely, emotive air, her fingers very light on the keys.

Ryan was next up, with a demonstration of the "Mr. Dressup Theme" as a strathspey, followed by a fantastic set of tunes. Ryan is one of those musicians who really gets into the tunes with his whole body, clearly loving every minute of it. He had a lot of good variations on a Skinner air, and his playing seemed to have a bit of a jazzy lilt to it. His brother Boyd provided guitar accompaniment. David, one of this year's artists in residence, then took the "hot seat." I had never heard his playing before, and I was enthralled with it. He clearly had a jazz influence, and played some really interesting interpretations of some standard tunes. These arrangements were truly unique, and quite fun to listen to. Sort of "Celtic with a groove," I'd say.

Tracey followed with accompaniment from Mac and Boyd. She played a beautifully smooth version of the "St. Columba Hymn," followed by a snappy set of tunes. I'm just amazed at what this woman can do with just one hand. Clear staccato notes with perfect precision, and she's a master of melodies. Mac was next with an equally impressive air/reel set. Easy to tell these two have played together before!

Mac, Tracey and Boyd also started off the second half of the show. This half featured some more off-the-cuff playing and pairings of musicians. This set was simply amazing (and nice and long, too)! Tracey and Mac took turns one-handing the melody while the other chorded. The transitions and key changes were well-timed, and the harmonies and rhythms spectacular.

The rest of the second half followed suit. Kimberley and Troy played a wonderful set, also trading melodies and accompaniment with some great harmonies. Ryan and Boyd came together again for a neat set of jigs -- nice syncopation and some innovative off-beat rhythms. Then David and Mac joined together for a set. Dave began with a jazzy set of jigs, followed by some uniquely arranged reels. The two pianists were well-synchronized with key changes, and their playing was very complementary. I imagine that these two do not collaborate all that often, but you certainly wouldn't know it to hear them!

The final act featured all six pianists. They brought out the electronic keyboards so that everyone could play together. I always love this part of a Celtic Colours show, and this was no exception. These individuals played as though they'd been together for years. Transitions between tunes and keys were seamless, and the mix of harmonies, melodies and chording was spectacular. The whole auditorium seemed to be moving as one, with the bobbing heads and tapping feet. Once again, I'll be putting this show at the top of my list of things to see next year!

- Rambles
written by Cheryl Turner
published 18 December 2004

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