Review: The violin takes a bow in a celebration of fiddle music

Natalie MacMaster joined a collections of Canadian fielders in a concert celebrating the instrument and its musical legacy. Photo: Rebekah Littlejohn

The fiddle is played everywhere in this country from the tip of Cape Spear to the top of the Northwest Territories and so it makes sense that if you are going to host a festival called Canada Scene, you’d better have an evening of fiddle music.

And what an evening it was Saturday night with virtuosos from across the land taking a turn on centre stage before ceding the ground inside Southam Hall to Natalie MacMaster, the Queen of Cape Breton fiddle music.

The fiddle’s story begins in the kitchens and countryside of places like the Isle of Eigg off the coast of Scotland. That’s where MacMaster’s ancestors came from in the 1700s. They settled in Cape Breton. Others settled in places like Prince Edward Island. Players also landed in Quebec. And from those early arrivals the music moved West into the Ottawa Valley, across the Prairies and north of 60.

The sound percolated everywhere and produced homemade songs that entertained people on cold winter nights and warm summer evenings. It is folksy, rootsy, all those things that the cities don’t necessarily treasure. But so many people do, as was evident Saturday night.

They enjoyed the high-stepping April Verch, from Rankin, Ontario just by Pembroke. This graduate of the respected Berklee School of Music kicked off the evening, blazing away on her fiddle while step-dancing her way across the stage.

April was followed on by Wesley Hardisty from Fort Simpson, Northwest Territories who showed off a smooth style rooted in Indigenous and country influences.

The premier Metis fiddler of his generation is John Arcand. When he was introducing Arcand to the audience, the host for the evening Karrnnel Sawitsky said Arcand was the most decorated fiddler in Canada.

The silver-haired gentleman from Debden, Saskatchewan proceed to prove the point, bringing his simple, clean style to tunes such as Le Michif and the wonderfully titled Old Bone Trail, which honours the route taken by men driving Red River carts carrying buffalo bones to Saskatoon and Regina and ultimately into Minnesota where the bones were ground down for fertilizer or to be used in the production of sugar.

The talent just kept coming with a turn by the enthusiastic P.E.I. fiddler Cynthia MacLeod, who showed off a medley of tunes from her home province with some real panache.

The first half of the show ended with Sawitsky and his band The Fretless playing a couple of pieces from their JUNO winning instrumental album Bird’s Nest, including the title track. The three violinists and one cellist showed a jazzier, chamber-music side to fiddle music that was at once sophisticated and rooted in tradition.

The second half was MacMaster’s time to shine. She is certainly a polished performer with her mane of blond hair, her red dress and leather-appearing pants and heels. She plays with panache and enthusiasm. In fact, she might have had a bit more energy than normal as husband Donnell Leahy was at home with the couple’s six kids.

MacMaster enjoyed her night “at the spa,” playing tunes from across her repertoire including pieces by her legendary uncle Buddy MacMaster, who died a few years ago after playing the fiddle for more than 80 years. As she said, “Just picture yourselves in my parent’s kitchen.” And we all did.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.