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The Barra MacNeils and the CPO

The Barra MacNeils don't just appear with orchestras, y'know.
The Barra MacNeils don't just appear with orchestras, y'know.
Courtesy of Instinct artist agency

He sings, plays the penny whistle, the Irish flute, and the accordion, and does orchestral arrangements: with what kind of band must he perform?

If you said a traditional Celtic folk band, that was formally trained as musicians, and has spent the last 25-some years promoting, performing and exulting in the musical histories of Maritime Canada and its European roots (indicated by their inclusion of a Scotland reference in the ‘Barra’ of their name,) . . .

You’d be right.

“The first four in the family, Sheumas, Kyle, Lucy and myself (Stewart MacNeil) went to Mount Allison University (and received classical training), and just after we finished that up we were invited by the PEI Symphony to do a show as part of their ‘Pops’ series back in the 1990s. The interesting thing about that is that there is some of the material from those early shows (like “My Heart’s in the Highlands”) that really stand up well.. . . . So we’ve played with (P.E.I and) the Regina Symphony, Edmonton Symphony, Victoria Symphony, Toronto Symphony, . .” And, of course, Symphony Nova Scotia.

And, the Barra MacNeils (in case you’re still wondering) are bringing the conductor they worked with in Toronto: John Morris Russell, who leads the Cincinnati Pops, with them.

“We just had a blast when we did the Toronto show, and afterwards, back in Halifax, we had two shows with the Symphony N.S. (and, after the bureaucratic red tape of a live recording process,) we were very happy with the album.”

In my humble spirit of disclosure that I keep posted high on my wall, I tell Stewart that I’ve already offended an East Coast band by casually saying how it sounds like a ‘kitchen party’.

Given the formal training a band like the Barra MacNeils members received early in their career, I have to ask: Does this kind of assumption affect them? And, were they not already performing when they attended the music program at Mount Allison?

“We’re a family of 5 brothers and a sister, (who) made our first album in 1986. That’s as good a point as any to call our starting point, though we grew up playing; a lot of ‘trad’ (-itional folk) music in particular. There was a lot of music at our parents’ house, and they encouraged a lot of people to drop in.” As Stewart describes, once they started their formal training, “it was still pretty common on weekends to do gigs, and also all through the summer months in Halifax, sometimes for a week at a time. It just evolved into this thing, and here we’re coming up on 30 years!”

We go back to the discussion of ‘kitchen party’ and traditional or folk musics, versus the formalized concept of ‘serious’ music.

“I think what works for the Barra MacNeils in this context is the mix of the ‘trad’ and the orchestral arrangements: it’s not strictly traditional, and there’s tunes in the show that were hits on Adult Pop radio back in the 90s. But there are other pieces that are cinematic and symphonic in nature.. . . . It really shows the Barra MacNeils off in a good form.

“It’s interesting, because you can see as the rehearsals go on, there’s fun to be had in a lot of the arrangements. (At the beginning of rehearsals, sometimes the orchestras) are more concerned about their semi-classical repertoire (in the show)), but when they get involved with the show, they see there’s some stuff there where they can have some fun.”

To demonstrate the breadth of the MacNeils’ musicality, Stewart responds to my question about what sounds like a very rural, amusing, and perhaps ‘simple’ tune, “Horses, Geese & One Old Man” by discussing its composer (Grey Larsen), and its Quebecois flavour (it’s other name is “Reel Á Bouche Acadien”), “where beats are added, and it’s not always symmetrical, but there are bridge sections, and it really does open up into something that has that cinematic, very epic feel. It’s one of my favourites.”

Don’t be deceived by their current symphonic robes, though: Stewart mentions that they’ve played the folk clubs in all four quadrants of Calgary. On the 14th and15th, they’ll be in the Jack Singer Concert Hall, and some tickets are still available as of today (Monday), so contact the CPO and catch the Family MacNeil.

“There’s a tone palette within the Barra MacNeils that is unique to what we do.. . . . And with the three shows (Friday night and two shows on Saturday) we’ll be playing in front of over 4,000 people: it’ll be the biggest audience we’ve ever had in Calgary!”

Break a leg, Stewart!!