Play Harder: On Violins and Virtuosity (Entry 2)

Play Harder: On Violins and Virtuosity (Entry 2)

Posted 30 October 2015 by Maria Millar
Shelly Campbell – a school teacher by day and fiddler by night – is seen performing with the step dancing troupe Fileanta. Shelly Campbell – a school teacher by day and fiddler by night – is seen performing with the step dancing troupe Fileanta. (Photo: Maria Millar )

Read the previous post in Maria Millar's Play Harder series: 


This past month, I’ve listened to more live violin playing than I have in the last two decades combined!

The spree began on a sunny September day in Toronto. I arrived at 8:30 am for jury duty… but fun jury duty. It involved listening to Canadians from around the world who flew in to compete for 21 violins and cellos – including instruments by Stradivari, Guarneri and Gagliano – in the Canada Council Musical Instrument Bank Competition. Juggling technique, artistry and charisma is no easy task; when a finalist delivered on all fronts, the excitement was electric. The jury got to try out the violins and cellos beforehand. I still think a bad violin can't hide a great player, but I have to admit it was fun.

Round 2 of fiddle-watching began in October when Shawn and I arrived in Cape Breton in time for the Celtic Colours International Festival. Joella Foulds, the Executive Director, graciously provided us with 5 nights of tickets. The first movement I'm composing for Four Seasons Rising, titled Fall, is inspired by Cape Breton music and nature, so you can imagine how psyched I was.

The fiddle is ubiquitous in Cape Breton. While foot tapping is ironed out of us from an early age in Classical music, it’s heightened to the realm of stomping here, adding percussive backbone to the already rhythmic bowing. Shelly Campbell – a school teacher by day and fiddler by night – is seen performing above with the step dancing troupe Fileanta. I can’t get over her incredible rhythm, surely forged by the countless square dances she’s accompanied.

It’s pretty funny/impressive when musicians jump from fiddle to keyboard to guitar to step dancing. Abigail MacDonald is seen performing a sailor’s dance after singing, playing the guitar and accompanying her father on the piano!

The East Pointers hail from PEI, and their energetic buildups, tight sound and ability to multitask (the fiddler played full numbers while drumming the percussion with his feet) had me riveted!

As I took in Celtic Colours, I felt proud knowing that Canada has such a strong and unique musical treasure in Cape Breton.  I started Irish fiddling in my late teens when I visited my grandma in Northern Ireland; I’m a little embarrassed I traveled so far when all along, fiddling has been flourishing here in my own backyard!

Irish fiddling DID land me my first job: the role of Fiddler in Riverdance on Broadway.  Performing solos on a huge stage transformed me, and each night, I couldn’t wait to incorporate bigger, bolder dance moves into my fiddle numbers.  My fascination with virtuosity has continued ever since, and I’m happy to say that Donnell Leahy – of The Leahy Family fame – has mastered it!  His deep lunges, foot stomping, sitting-to-standing buildups and facial expressions make even a series of repeated 8th notes seem like a complex show piece.  Leahy’s delivery is matched by his execution, with a fantastic bow arm and the rare ability to incorporate multiple genres into a single set.

You can see Donnell Leahy (left) and Ashley MacIsaac powered by the awesome keyboard playing of Mac Morin (who got up and step danced a few moments later). It’s no surprise all 3 performers are household names in these parts.

Shawn and I are now en route to Wreck Cove, NS after 2 weeks in Margaree Valley at The Normaway Inn. The fabulous characters we met could fill a post (or 3), so I'll leave that story till next week!

Thanks for reading,

Maria Millar. Photo : Josh Cutillo

About the Author: Maria Millar

Play Harder is a regular series by Maria Kaneko Millar chronicling the creation of Four Seasons Rising, a project funded by Canada Council for the Arts that involves going to four corners of Canada and the US – Nova Scotia, Florida, Nunavut and California – to research, shoot footage and compose a symphonic work for Sonic Escape with orchestra. Maria is the violinist & composer of Sonic Escape, a duo of Juilliard graduates whose blend of hyper-instrumentals, stories, dance moves and original works is "wonderfully imaginative... with a wide-ranging, anything-goes sense of fun.” (The Washington Post@sonicescape

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