As with many great joys of life, Natalie MacMaster & Donnell Leahy’s “A Celtic Family Christmas” performance began with a child singing. On Thursday, Dec. 5, Julia MacMaster Leahy, dressed in gold, regaled the audience at the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts with a bright, clear, Christmas carol. There were many families gathered to see the show, and the feeling of the holidays, the warmth and happiness of spending time with loved ones, was present in the air.
Soon, Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy, fiddle players from Cape Breton, Canada, took the stage, both husband and wife dressed in matching plaid outfits. The Cape Breton fiddling style is a method of Scottish-style violin-playing. MacMaster had excellent stage presence and musicianship. She was energetic and effervescent, strong and striking in her ability to make everyone feel at home in the audience. Leahy was a technically profound musician, with precise movements and a modern staccato sound. The whole audience began clapping along with the music within the first few minutes of their performance.
The show was mixed between classical Celtic tunes and familiar Christmas songs. The music transitioned seamlessly between songs, moving from happy to sad, evoking memories of childhood. In between the songs, MacMaster and Leahy told stories of their childhood, showing home videos on the projection screen. Leahy grew up on a farm in a family of fiddlers, with an Irish father from Ontario and a Scottish mother from Cape Breton. His father was a fiddle-player and his mom was a step-dancer. MacMaster, who is from Cape Breton, has been playing the fiddle since the age of nine, and her mom was a singer, a step-dancer and a fiddle-player.
MacMaster and Leahy were accompanied by guitarists Elmer Ferrer from Cuba and Remí Arsenault from Prince Edward Island, and pianist Mac Morin from Cape Breton, Canada. Throughout the performance, he would get up from behind the piano and perform a step-dance in the Scottish highland tradition.
Mary Frances, Michael, Claire, Julia and Alex, five of MacMaster and Leahy’s seven children, performed throughout the show, playing the fiddle and step-dancing, showing a wide range of skills. Michael, their oldest son, played the accordion with an alacrity surprising in one so young, and it was touching to see his father looking at him with pride as he played, perhaps seeing an image and a reflection of his younger self.
Mary Frances, their oldest daughter, is a very skilled and lively fiddler and a technically excellent piano player. Claire, their middle daughter, was an athletic and powerful dancer, with strong, precise, movements, and she had a lovely, crystalline soprano voice. Julia, their second youngest daughter, was a graceful and elegant dancer, and had a strong stage presence and singing voice. Alex, their second youngest son, was adorable and funny, and when he performed with his older brother, his dancing and his fiddle-playing became faster and more precise.
Sarah MacAllister, Natalie MacMaster’s first cousin once removed, delivered a transcendent soprano on several of the songs, performing in both Gaelic and English. MacAllister, who is fluent in Gaelic, was a college student majoring in biology, and she is taking time off from school to perform on tour with her family.
During one of the breaks in between the songs, Natalie MacMaster told the audience why she liked performing Christmas shows. Christmas, like any holiday, changes with the times.
“It doesn’t need to be what it was when you were a kid. It’s about sharing traditions and cherishing [time with] your family,” MacMaster said.