Review: Matt MacIsaac’s Piping Live! Lunchtime Recital
Piping Live! 2022 Lunchtime Recital
National Piping Centre
August 9, 2022
Reviewed by Iain MacDonald
If you didn’t know him or follow his piping career, it might be easy to be confused about who exactly Matt MacIsaac is as a piper. Descriptions of him often mention his Cape Breton musical pedigree and sometimes the fact that he is a multi-instrumentalist. Matt won the Silver Medal at a relatively young age, has a strong competitive record in solos and bands, has been a pipe-major in the Canadian Forces, a touring musician with Natalie McMaster’s band, and lately a sought-after instructor and the pipe-major of the new Grade 2 St. Andrew’s Association in Ontario.
All this experience shines through in solo performance, and a small but lucky crowd gathered in the recital hall at the National Piping Centre to hear Matt deliver an hour of really enjoyable music.
I’m told the starting set of 3/4s is a set from his pipe band, and it was a tasty and confident entry showing lots of poise, terrific sound and including the lovely G.S. McLennan tune “Nona,” which is published in the Gordon Highlanders Collection.
The set of jigs that came next started with “The Little House Under the Hill” and it quickly spun into interesting variations. Matt is known for his amazing technique, and it really came through in the jigs, such as “Inspector Donald Campbell of Ness” delivered with a superb musical feel and also an added level of technical difficulty. Matt’s musical approach seems both playful and intense. He adds layers of rhythmical technique and intensity to the tunes, sometimes as little variations on repeat, but never compromises the lilting musical flow that he’s established.
Next came an MSR featuring the march “Hugh Alexander Low of Tiree” followed by “Cabar Feidh” and “Bradford Bay.” All three tune tunes were exactly what you’d want to hear for the idiom and knitted together in a seamless package. Just. So. Good.
Matt added unique rhythmic and musical touches to these well-known tunes, and they came off fresh and interesting like newly cut and dyed hair. “I love what you’ve done with those tunes!”
A set of hornpipes next that included one of his own tunes, and followed with “Dr. McInnes’s Fancy” and “The Drunken Landlady.” Matt pointed out that parts three and four of the last tune were composed by Cape Breton fiddler Stewart MacNeil, another example of the many exchanges of repertoire among fiddlers and pipers. Again, Matt added unique rhythmic and musical touches to these well-known tunes, and they came off fresh and interesting like newly cut and dyed hair. “I love what you’ve done with those tunes!”
After speaking a little about the Cape Breton tradition of dance piping, Matt played some competition-style tunes in a slightly going-for-it manner, but still well within the frame of expectation for classic tunes, although he let rip with some excellent technical flicks in “Sandy Cameron” . . . as if it wasn’t a hard enough tune already.
Scott Skinner’s “Hector the Hero” led off a set that included a complicated waltz and finished with a unique setting of “Donald, Willie and His Dog.” It was all so enjoyable.
The promises of Cape Breton were fully delivered in the final set of smaller strathspeys and reels, which would have filled the floor at the Mabou dance and had the audience in the NPC fully engaged, if not dancing.
By the end of this recital, anyone listening would know that Matt is a superb musician. It was an hour of very satisfying music, covering well-known tunes with fresh, challenging, and playful variations, and shining light on some lesser-known tunes that stood up to the rest of the repertoire. It was all delivered on a great-sounding instrument, and it was just so easy to enjoy it all.
Iain MacDonald is a frequent contributor to pipes|drums. A piper of the first order, his teaching and organizational contributions in and around his native Saskatchewan are legendary, and he was voted one of the 15 Greatest Living Canadian Pipers & Drummers in our celebration of the country’s 150th birthday in 2017. A former member of Grade 1 bands Babcock-Renfrew and Simon Fraser University and a current member of the 78th Highlanders (Halifax Citadel), he was the pipe-major of the Grade 2 City of Regina for three decades until his recent decision to step down. He lives in Regina.