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Bi-coastal Celtic celebration

Mary Ellen Green, Monday Magazine

Get ready for a bi-coastal celebration with Celtic superstars the Barra MacNeils and the Victoria Symphony March 1 – 3 at the Royal Theatre.

Twenty-five years after the Barra MacNeils went into the studio to record their self-titled debut album, the six siblings and multi-instrumentalists from Sydney Mines, Cape Breton Island, N.S. are getting ready to release their 14th album, recorded in April over two back-to-back concerts with Symphony Nova Scotia at Halifax’s Rebecca Cohn Auditorium. The CD will be available for pre-sale in Victoria before being released to the rest of the country later on this month.

“We’re really excited about the timing of this show because although we’ve done these shows for a long time, we’ve never had a recording available,” says Stewart MacNeil (vocals, accordion, tin whistle, flute, bouzouki, guitar, step dancing).

The Barra MacNeils began doing orchestra and symphony shows with the P.E.I. Symphony Orchestra in the early 90’s. They’ve since performed with many more, including Toronto and Edmonton.

“It’s nice because the Barra MacNeils themselves are an orchestra,” says MacNeil. “We’re multi-instrumentalists, we all sing, and it’s primarily an acoustic affair, so I think the colours really work with symphonies.”

This will be the first time the Barra MacNeils have played with the Victoria Symphony but VS conductor-in-residence, Giuseppe (Joey) Pietraroia says they’re up to the task.

“It’s always a challenge when we haven’t worked with a group before and haven’t played their music because it’s not part of the repertoire, but a show like this has been performed before, it’s gone through other orchestras and symphonies, so the arrangements have been checked out,” he says.

The show will run the gamut of full orchestral arrangements to original compositions, traditional jigs and reels and even some accapella, all featuring the Barra MacNeils’ signature harmonies, step dancing and multi-instrumental prowess. Pietraroia says the Victoria Symphony will also be playing a couple of songs at the beginning of each of the two sets.

MacNeil says that although they grew up playing traditional music at kitchen parties and community dances, their formal training at Mount Allison University has allowed them the understanding and ability to create more complex arrangements.

“We have a strong traditional background, but we also have formal training and that’s made making arrangements and playing with orchestras accessible.”

They’ll be playing arrangements by James Mark, Eric Robertson, Scott MacMillan, Christoper Palmer and even some by MacNeil himself.

“It’s going to be a pretty full stage,” says MacNeil. “After talking to a few people with the Victoria Symphony there’s a little concern that the stage will be full, so we’re all on a diet to make sure we fit,” he says with a chuckle.