Christmas Celtic Sojourn is a family party;
new faces, old faces revel in music-making
By Sean Smith
Special to the BIR
“A Christmas Celtic Sojourn,” which opens for its 13th year on Dec. 11 at Boston’s Cutler Majestic Theater, has become as much a family-style tradition for its performers as for the crowds that flock to see the show every year.
For example, those little kids from the Harney Academy of Irish Dance who, year in and year out, invariably win hearts and earn respect among audience members with their spirited, youthful display? Well, some of them will be returning to the stage this year as high school and even college students.
“The whole thing’s really taken on a life of its own, something people seem to look forward to,” says the show’s creator and host, WGBH’s Brian O’Donovan. “It’s quite amazing to contemplate that some of those dancers from the Harney Academy who joined us during the early years of the show are now practically grown up. To have them, along with the younger Harney dancers, in the line-up indicates how well-rooted ‘Christmas Celtic Sojourn’ is.”
True to form, this year’s show – which also will be staged in Worcester and New Bedford, as well as Rockport (where it is already sold out) – will include other returnees, notably “Sojourn” music director Seamus Egan and his band Solas (fiddler Winifred Horan, multi-instrumentalists Mick McAuley and Eamon McElholm, and guest bassist Chico Huff), harpist Maeve Gilchrist, cellist Natalie Haas and Eamon Murray on bodhran and percussion (“Eamon has an excellent touch on the drum, of course, but he’s also quite the character on stage – always glad to have him in the mix,” says O’Donovan).
Cara Butler, who appeared in the 2012 and 2014 productions, will be back not only as a featured solo dancer but also as dance director for the show. Joining her, and the Harney Academy students and alumni, will be English step-dancer Declan McHale.
Making her debut with the show will be vocalist Cathy Jordan, known for her work with the band Dervish, and among a vanguard of pioneering female Irish singers – along with the likes of Mary Black, Maura O’Connell, Dolores Keane and Moya Brennan – that came to the fore during the 1970s and ’80s.
“Cathy is a powerful presence, and someone we’ve wanted for the longest time to be in the show,” says O’Donovan. “She has a broad resume and repertoire that is perfect for ‘Christmas Celtic Sojourn.’ More to the point, when you look at the female singers we’ve had in the show, they’ve all had the chops to perform in this kind of production, certainly, but they’ve also had the personality to match. Cathy does, too.”
Also new to “Christmas Celtic Sojourn” this year is the Nordic Fiddlers Bloc: Shetlander Kevin Henderson, Olav Luksengård Mjelva from Norway and Anders Hall from Sweden are fine exponents of their respective fiddle traditions, with which they create a fascinating synthesis of styles and sounds while upholding the distinctive flavor of each element.
“We’ve often explored in the show a crossover/kinship dynamic between traditions – like Appalachian or old-timey for instance,” says O’Donovan. “This Northern music of Scandinavia and the Shetlands seems remote, even exotic, but there’s an unmistakable connection to Celtic traditions that makes for compelling listening.”
The presence of these “Christmas Celtic Sojourn” newcomers will, in turn, make for striking collaborations with the show’s returnees, he adds. “Solas is a powerhouse, of course, and part of what makes them great is how well they work – as a group or individually – with other performers.
“Maeve plays that ancient instrument, the harp – she’s also a talented pianist and singer – but she has a very innovative, contemporary approach that utilizes a lot of improvisation. Natalie, meanwhile, has helped bring the cello into the domain of Celtic music, through her partnership with fiddler Alasdair Fraser but also through numerous stage and recording appearances with an array of different performers.
“You can only imagine how exciting it is, as we’re drawing up the plans for the show, to think about the various combinations and how they might sound: harp with cello; cello with a Scandinavian hardanger fiddle and viola; accordion and harp; and all of them together with the rest of the ensemble – the list just goes on and on.”
O’Donovan says the ascension of Butler – whose resume includes appearances with The Chieftains, Solas, and Cherish the Ladies, and lead dancer credit in the “Dancer’s Morning” Folger’s commercial – to dance director for “Christmas Celtic Sojourn” was practically destined to happen. “When she was in the show on earlier occasions, she practically took on the director’s job ad hoc and showed some real leadership; then when I hired her for the ‘Celtic Sojourn’/Boston Pops show back in the spring, she demonstrated a strong work ethic in delivering custom, high-quality choreography.
“Those were important considerations in having her assume the dance director’s job. Obviously, as director you not only have to work with the other dancers, including the Harney kids, but also with the musicians, the production crew, and so on. Cara will do all that, and the result will be top-notch.”
Butler, he adds, already made a significant contribution to this year’s show by bringing in McHale, who has four World Championship and three All-Ireland titles to his credit, has toured with “Riverdance,” and performed with Dervish and Cherish the Ladies.
“Declan is quite accomplished, and he has a tremendous sense of roguery, even comedy, to his style – he’ll definitely make an impression,” notes O’Donovan.
Paula Plum’s 13th consecutive stint as the show’s artistic director underscores the sense of continuity in “Christmas Celtic Sojourn,” O’Donovan says, even as new personalities and wrinkles are added.
“If you go back to the idea of the show and its performers and crew as a ‘family’ in and of itself, well, families undergo changes over time: There come new faces, who bring a fresh perspective and energy with them, and there are still the ‘old’ faces, who represent the family history and memories; you get them together for a party every year, and with all the familiarity there’ll always be something a little different, too. That’s what it’s all about.”
“A Christmas Celtic Sojourn” will take place at the Cutler Majestic Theater Dec. 11-13 and 18-20; the Hanover Theater in Worcester on December 14; and the Zeiterion Theater in New Bedford on December 17 (the December 15 show at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport is sold out). For show times, tickets and other information, see wgbh.org/celtic.