The last time Natalie MacMaster played Breckenridge, in 2008, the show sold out and the Grammy-winning fiddler took her step dancing to the floor with the same energy crowds have come to expect — even though she herself was expecting at the time. Tonight the 40-year-old MacMaster returns with her husband, fiddler Donnell Leahy, to perform a joint show at the Riverwalk Center as the opening act of this summer’s newly expanded Blue River Series from the Breckenridge Music Festival.
Masters of the Fiddle combines the talents of husband and wife along with two pianos played by MacMaster’s pianist, Mac Norin, and Leahy’s sister, Erin Leahy.
“The combination of our keyboard players is amazing,” Leahy said. “They’re a real band, the two of them.”
Husband and wife team
MacMaster, whose long list of accolades includes two Grammy nominations and a win for her contribution to Yo-Yo Ma’s “Songs of Joy & Peace,” grew up in the Cape Breton fiddling tradition in Nova Scotia, Canada. Though Scottish in origin, she said, Cape Breton has its own sound — very danceable and lively, with a strong rhythm. The style of fiddling is difficult, MacMaster said, because it doesn’t use a lot of slurring, a smoothing technique where two or more notes are played in one bowing movement.
“We use one bow movement for one note,” she said. This creates a style that is lively “but also has some really deep grooves.”
Leahy, who leads up his family band of the same name, comes from a family of fiddlers — five generations of Irish players on his father’s side and the Cape Breton tradition on his mother’s. He plays by ear and counts mainstream music — pretty much “anything I would hear,” he said — among his influences.
The two have been married for 10 years and playing together seriously for the past four or five, during which time they had to learn to play together, Leahy said.
“Natalie is the front person in the Natalie world, and I am the front person in Leahy,” he said. “When we played together for the first time, we both backed off to let the other play in the front and it wasn’t very good; neither of us expressed ourselves.”
Now, however, “it’s really great because the stuff we do together is not just us playing the same piece; we had to learn it together and play it together,” he said. “We had to write the pieces together, and then it all made sense.”
Concertgoers can expect “fired-up, smokin’ stuff; beautiful slow stuff; worldly stuff, Cape Breton stuff and step dancing,” at the Breckenridge concert, he said.
“It’s very exciting, lively, spirited, up-tempo — which is typical for the type of fiddle we play, but it’s also very intelligent, well-crafted, with good arrangements. It’s music that’s very traditional in one sense, but it’s also very worldly in another sense,” MacMaster said, crediting the worldly flare to her husband. Still, she said, “even if I’m playing something that’s not Cape Breton, it still sounds Cape Breton because of my style.”
MacMaster released “Cape Breton Girl,” a recording that represents a return to her roots, in 2011. Now, she and Leahy are working on a new album to include some of the music they’ll play in Breckenridge.
“I love the fact that I’m married to someone who I thought was one of the greatest fiddlers I’d ever heard — and I still think that,” she said. “It’s a dream, really.”
Series expands with new partnership
Masters of the Fiddle comes to Breckenridge as part of the Blue River Series from the Breckenridge Music Festival, a nonprofit group best known for its summer orchestral repertoire. The BMF started the series in 1993 as a way to bring popular music acts to town, too. Past performers have included Randy Newman, Trampled by Turtles, Imelda May and Robert Earl Keen.
This year, for the first time, the Breckenridge Music Festival joins forces with the town of Breckenridge to bring in some bigger acts, starting with The Wailers on July 5 and Aaron Neville on Aug. 4.
“People wanted bigger bands,” said Marcia Kaufmann, executive director of the Breckenridge Music Festival, which conducted a survey this winter to better understand how the group can serve the community. “So we came up with a way that everybody benefits.”
Diversifying the offerings at the Riverwalk Center — which was built 20 years ago, primarily as a home for the Breckenridge Music Festival Orchestra and the National Repertory Orchestra — has been on the Breckenridge Town Council’s top 10 goals for more than two years, according to Kim Dykstra-DiLallo, director of communications for the town. That interest intensified after AEG brought Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt to the Riverwalk Center for a nearly sold-out show in 2011, so when the BMF stepped up with a proposal, the town, Breckenridge Resort Chamber and Breckenridge Ski Resort came on board to work out the details and make it happen.
“The council is very excited about moving forward with a local organization that understands our community but also knows how to pull in nationally recognized groups that can diversify the offerings that we have here,” Dykstra-DiLallo said. “It’s really cool that these three entities — the town/Riverwalk Center, the BRC and the ski area — are all coming together as part of what the Breckenridge Music Festival has put together.
“We’re really excited, not just about bringing these music groups here but about the collaboration and cooperation within the community.”