A Review of Fiddler Natalie MacMaster in Concert with the Okanagan Symphony, March 2003
by Rhiannon Nachbaur of Award-Winning Fiddleheads Violin Studio
A hand shot up out of the audience and waved emphatically, attempting to catch the celebrity’s attention. The spotlit fiddler peered out into the darkness and candidly asked, “Do I know you? Am I related to you?” The whole room burst into laughter and I felt like I was right there with Natalie MacMaster in her kitchen enjoying a homespun “ceilidh,” (kay-lee) Celtic dance.
She went on to tune her violin patiently, though hundreds of eyes watched anxiously. Perhaps she sensed the urgency when she joked that her tuning was, “Close enough for Celtic,” and the room chuckled again. Then this sweet, down-to-earth gal from Cape Breton Island picked up her fiddle and the “kitchen” went up in flames! There wasn’t a foot within earshot that could resist tapping to her phenomenal playing and dancing.
Earshot, but not eyeshot. Unfortunately, most of the audience could only see the virtuoso from the waist-up due to the level seating arrangement of our community center. Natalie’s legendary clicks and clacks of tap shoes on the hollow stage stirred me to leave my seat and watch the entire concert from the side aisle. Soon after standing, I ran back to fetch my young violin students, who were too short to catch the fancy footwork from their seats.
In true Celtic tradition, our quiet observation from the sidelines grew into louder foot stomping, which rapidly escalated into energetic circle dancing and jigs. Natalie’s own dancing featured high kicks, quick spins and rhythmic tap dancing. As the show progressed, her traditional Scottish step dancing morphed into groovy modern hip-hop and disco moves, including the notorious and difficult “Moonwalk!”
Much to my surprise and delight, the music also went through a breathtaking metamorphosis. The concert started with traditional Celtic melodies played by the silky string sections of the symphony. Next was a Cape Breton fiddle tune in what Natalie called the “Canadian key” of “A.” After such traditional pieces, we learned that she was more multifaceted than imaginable. From a Latin mix to the gorgeous jazz ballad, “Autumn Leaves,” we were all captivated by her versatility.
Concertmaster, Denis Letourneau, was as mesmerized as the audience was! The classical virtuoso beamed from ear to ear and repeatedly shook his head in awe and admiration of Natalie’s fiddling fireworks. Then he contributed to the pyrotechnics when he joined Natalie for a musical goulash where “fiddling met violining.” Their duet blended the popular fiddle tune “Devil’s Dream” with the intricate Bach Violin Partita in E!
“Denis, we have an expression back in Cape Breton,” said Natalie afterwards, “When we really dig in, we say we were ‘driving ‘er.’ Now you can go home and say last night you were really ‘driving ‘er!” Denis blushed. Natalie smiled. We all felt two worlds converge and it felt wonderful.
As our cultures blend, I think we’ll be seeing a lot more “Traditional fusion” in music. Diverse forms of music, polar as they may seem now, will soon merge and create new genres that people of all ages and walks of life can appreciate. Put a symphony orchestra, a fiddler, a funk band and a bagpiper playing on stage at the same time and everyone from Grandma to the teenager with the spiked hair will approve.
There will be growing pains, naturally. As in Natalie’s concert, there will be an obvious polarity in the audience in deciding proper concert protocol. Some people won’t know whether get up and dance in the aisles, or to be content in sitting in quiet appreciation. Like any pioneers, we’ll find a middle ground that works for everyone. Heck, a friend of mine once created “seated dancing” in such an awkward situation.
Natalie’s charm and talent, coupled with her obvious love of music, were enough to inspire this violinist to explore new avenues of expression and technique. My students talked about the concert for weeks and have found a role model who will guide them into wonderful new directions.
Thank you, Natalie. You are one amazing Canadian pioneer and we love you for it!