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The Barra MacNeils partner with Symphony Nova Scotia on new album

Laura Jean Grant, Cape Breton Post

SYDNEY — The Barra MacNeils are equally at home at local square dances as they are on stage at major concert halls, a quality that has served the band well in a career spanning 25 years.

“It really is a testament of the versatility of the band,” said Stewart MacNeil, who performs alongside siblings Sheumas, Kyle, Lucy, Boyd and Ryan, in one of the island’s most successful and recognized musical groups.

The Barra MacNeils’ latest project featured them sharing the stage with Symphony Nova Scotia in one of the province’s most distinguished venues, the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium in Halifax. The two joined forces for two performances there in April of 2011, and an album, “The Barra MacNeils with Symphony Nova Scotia Live in Concert,” released earlier this week, is the result of that collaboration. It’s The Barra MacNeils’ 15th recording, and Symphony Nova Scotia’s first commercially-released album since 2006.

“It’s a project that we’re very proud of,” said MacNeil. “We feel very, very lucky that it came together. They’re very special shows.”

MacNeil said they have worked with symphonies numerous times throughout their career describing it as “a natural” partnership, as a lot of Barra MacNeils’ material is orchestral in its conception.

“For the fans of The Barra MacNeils and fans of orchestral music, (the new album) is a nice marriage between The Barra MacNeils, and the Cape Breton roots that we have, and also the possibilities we have for expanding our music to include orchestras,” said MacNeil. “We’re not just a fiddle and piano band. We have a whole roster of instruments that colour the palette and really make The Barra MacNeils stand out as an exceptional group.”

The two nights of live music performed with Symphony Nova Scotia featured songs and tunes from throughout The Barra MacNeils’ career including “My Heart’s In The Highlands,” “Darling Be Home Soon,” “Dougie Mac,” “Caledonia,” and “Horses, Geese And One Old Man.”

MacNeil said they were excited to work on the project with fellow Cape Bretoner Martin MacDonald, who was Symphony Nova Scotia’s resident conductor at the time.

“We were thrilled. We grew up with Marty, we know Marty very well and his abilities as a conductor are tremendous,” he said.

In addition to the live album with Symphony Nova Scotia, 2012 will see the release of another special album from The Barra MacNeils, featuring music they recorded with special guests during last year’s Celtic Colours International Festival. MacNeil said they’re proud to be releasing these two projects in a milestone year for the band.

“It’s been 25 years since we made our first album, self-titled ‘The Barra MacNeils,’ and it’s been quite a ride really. A lot of bands are lucky if they can get through a couple of months. There’s a commitment and something special about the band that keeps us going, and this year, celebrating the 25 years, it’s very fitting that we do have a couple of very special projects.”

The new CD is available online at, on iTunes, and at the Cape Breton Curiosity Shop on Charlotte Street in Sydney.