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The Barra MacNeils and the VSO: a tour of Celtic music

Krista Morrow, The Martlet

Celtic music has many iterations: lively jigs and reels for dancing in the neighbour’s kitchen; rhythmic shanties for hauling in the East Coast cod; haunting pipe solos that echo across the rolling downs and bring back a long lost love. The Barra MacNeils and the Victoria Symphony Orchestra (VSO) teamed up in three performances on March 1, 2 and 3 to give audiences a grand tour of Celtic music in all its forms.

The VSO’s opening score, The Lord of the Dance, gave a good indication of the direction of the night. Eerie, echoing notes that conjured up images of fog on the Grand Banks were quickly replaced by nostalgic fiddle melodies reminiscent of laughter-filled Irish pubs. The song finally rolled into a rambunctious Scottish march (perfect for stealing cattle by the light of the moon). The six MacNeil siblings, Kyle, Lucy, Sheumas, Stewart, Boyd and Ryan, along with bassist Jamie Gattie, were welcomed on stage by a pleased but subdued audience for their first tune. The Barra MacNeils performed with enough energy to galvanize the sober crowd into fits of foot-stomping and hand-clapping, and even the odd Gaelic cry.

From their first song to their last, the Barra MacNeils swept through a range of Celtic music, showcasing their abilities as talented instrumentalists, vocalists and performers. A variety of instruments also made an appearance: mandolin, bouzouki, accordion, Celtic harp and tin whistle all added their voices to those of the MacNeils, while the ever-present bodhrán provided a heartbeat. The uilleann pipes — a softer, sweeter, Irish version of the bagpipes — played by Ryan MacNeil, were a crowd favourite.

Hailing from Sydney Mines on Cape Breton Island, the Barra MacNeils amused the crowd between songs with small talk about their small-town roots. After asking the audience if anyone else from Sydney Mines was present and receiving a lone cheer from the back of the room, Sheumas MacNeil looked pleased and announced: “We’re all here, then!”

Although the lively, close-knit feel of an East Coast kitchen party was rather quashed by the orchestra hovering in the background, the Barra MacNeils and the VSO did deliver a celebratory overview of Celtic music to get our West Coast heels clicking in time for St. Patrick’s Day. So haul out the bodhrán and the fiddle, pick your favourite Gaelic cry. Let’s continue the Celtic Celebration.