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Latest CD features the six C.B. siblings sharing 20 instruments, with SNS adding overdrive

Stephen Cooke, Halifax Herald

CAPE BRETON’S BARRA MACNEILS are like an orchestra unto themselves, with its five brothers and one sister sharing 20 instruments between them, over a bass-and-drums rhythm section.

Their sound is powerful to be sure, so imagine their fiery reels and poignant ballads amplified by Symphony Nova Scotia. It’s like James Cameron adding 3-D to his blockbuster Titanic, taking something majestic and raising it to the realm of spectacle, in this case an extra-dimensional feast for the ears instead of the eyes.

Recorded over two nights last year at Halifax’s Rebecca Cohn Auditorium, the new CD release The Barra MacNeils with Symphony Nova Scotia: Live in Concert finds the common ground between the orchestra’s grandeur and the family band’s kitchen-party enthusiasm, and preserves an event that only gets heard by a lucky few.

“A lot of people, especially in Cape Breton, don’t have a symphony in their area, so it’s great that they get to hear a show that until now they’ve only heard about,” says accordion, flute and whistle player Stewart MacNeil. “And we can use this as a vehicle to move into doing a lot more touring and playing with symphonies across North America and beyond.

“This is our orchestral calling card, I suppose.”

Symphony shows are nothing new to the Barras, celebrating 25 years working together as a band this year, and their experience makes them a good fit for concert halls across Canada.

Stewart and the other original members — Sheumas on piano, Kyle on fiddle, guitar and mandolin and Lucy on harp and fiddle — studied classical music at Mount Allison University, while younger siblings Ryan (pipes, piano and darbuka) and Boyd (bouzouki, guitar, fiddle and pandeiro) share in the Sydney Mines family’s Scottish-Irish musical background, augmented by the community’s great fiddle and keyboard teachers.

“I think we have a good dialogue with the symphonies, in the rehearsals, and the players just seemed to have a lot of fun with it,” says Stewart, who also welcomes the contribution of longtime rhythm section, bassist Jamie Gatti and drummer Dave Burton. “And of course Martin MacDonald was such a treat to have with us for these two special nights, which were his last nights as one of the symphony’s resident conductors.

“It was quite emotional.”

A perfect choice to conduct the concerts, MacDonald is a Cape Breton native, the son of North Sydney fiddler Lloyd MacDonald, who in past years brought Natalie MacMaster and Ashley MacIsaac to share the Cohn stage with Symphony Nova Scotia before teaming with the Barra MacNeils.

Currently working with the Edmonton Symphony and Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra, MacDonald says he couldn’t think of a better way to mark his 100th performance with SNS than by performing music he’s known all his life.

“Growing up with Celtic music in Cape Breton, I knew them all when I was a kid, so it was nice to go full circle and work with them again,” says MacDonald of having “the holy trinity” of the island’s traditional performers play with the symphony.

“Especially the Barras, because I took step dancing lessons from their mom, I took fiddle lessons from Kyle, and me and my brother used to hang out with Ryan and Boyd at concerts and festivals, so we’ve known each other a long time.”

MacDonald has a number of favourite moments from the performances, including Lucy and Kyle’s iconic duet on My Heart’s in the Highlands, and Stewart’s loving ode to his wife Paula, Dance With Me Daily, arranged by another frequent SNS guest conductor, Scott Macmillan. He’s also grateful that the recording has received an important stamp of approval.

“My father says he could not stop listening to the first track, The Longest Day, and it was on repeat in his car stereo because it’s so uplifting, so well put together. It’s a fantastic arrangement and there was so much energy on stage, I just had goosebumps when we were doing it because it was so powerful.”

The task of capturing the beauty of these evenings fell to CBC producer Jeff Reilly and recording engineer Pat Martin, brought in by the Barras for their expertise in working with the sound at the Cohn for dozens of taped concerts.

Reilly, also an acclaimed musician and composer himself, was eager to continue the long relationship CBC has had with the band, going back to its earliest recordings, and he enjoyed the opportunity to watch its dynamic at work, and the intuitive way the MacNeils get things done.

“They are a family, but they’re also a band, and they’re also business partners,” he explains. “It’s fascinating to watch all the shorthand and all the unspoken stuff that goes on. There are a lot of meaningful looks being exchanged, and I’m not always quite sure what they mean, and these funny, pregnant silences.

“But they’re incredibly good musicians, and they all have very interesting, articulate things to say about music and insights into music, and each one of them is different. They all bring something unique to the band and make it work.”

The Barra MacNeils’ 25th anniversary celebrations don’t end with the release of the Symphony Nova Scotia CD. Later this year the group will launch a new disc recorded during last year’s Celtic Colours International Festival in Cape Breton with a full slate of special guests, ranging from Old Man Luedecke to Matt Minglewood.

“We did a new track with a different guest every day, and we just finished mixing it,” says Stewart, who hopes the new album surfaces in advance of this year’s Celtic Colours in October. “There’s some wonderful footage from the studio and the show we performed at the end of the week. I think it’s a beautiful piece of work.”