‘A Christmas Celtic Sojourn’ is in a different place these days No Solas presence means a jump into ‘uncharted waters’ for O’Donovan et al.

It’ll be 15 years – and the start of a new era – for “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn” when the curtain for the annual holiday show goes up on Dec. 12 at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport.
“Sojourn” makes its customary stop at the Cutler Majestic Theatre at Emerson College in Boston from Dec. 14-17, then heads to Worcester’s Hanover Theatre (Dec. 18), the Zeiterion Theatre in New Bedford (Dec. 19) and Providence’s Veterans Memorial Auditorium (Dec. 20) before returning to the Cutler to close out its run on Dec. 21 and 22.
The production will be hosted as usual by its creator and guiding spirit, WGBH-FM broadcaster Brian O’Donovan, who serves as narrator, interlocutor, and, occasionally, as a performer himself amidst music, song, dance, and storytelling from Irish, Scottish, and other Celtic – even non-Celtic – traditions.
While there will certainly be plenty of familiar elements in this year’s “Sojourn,” 2017 definitely marks a sea change. Perhaps the most significant one is the absence of super-group Solas, which for many years was the definitive “house band” for the show. But with Solas now on hiatus for an undetermined length of time, new faces – and new sounds – will take its place.
“We’re in uncharted territory,” agrees O’Donovan. “Anyone who’s come to the show in previous years, or seen or heard Solas anywhere else, knows how extraordinary they are. So yes, it’s quite a challenge to fill the void, but it’s also an opportunity to create something new and exciting.”
Fortunately, he notes, Solas co-founder and multi-instrumentalist Seamus Egan remains with “Sojourn” not only as a performer but also as music director, a role he’s filled for more than a decade. In addition, harpist/keyboardist/vocalist Maeve Gilchrist, a frequent “Sojourn” guest, has now become assistant music director.
“We knew that when Solas split, some serious reassembling would be required,” he says. “Seamus is absolutely brilliant as a director and arranger, but we thought an extra set of eyes, ears and heart would be a good idea. Maeve’s done this sort of thing before for us on an informal basis, anyway, writing parts or leading rehearsals. And she and Seamus have a great respect for one another, so this promises to be a wonderful partnership.”
A centerpiece of the musical “reassembling” will be the presence of three dynamic fiddlers, Liz Knowles, Jenna Moynihan and Haley Richardson, all making their debuts with the show. Knowles, a member of the trio Open the Door for Three and the String Sisters fiddle ensemble, balances classical technique and tonality with the verve and drive of traditional music; an upstate New York native living in Boston, Moynihan has a solid background in Scottish fiddle to which she adds Appalachian stylings and other variations; Richardson – at 15 the same age as “Christmas Celtic Sojourn” – has firmly established herself as a first-rate performer, with an appearance at the 2016 “St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn” among her credits.
“This is just a fascinating blend of fiddlers, individually and collectively,” says O’Donovan. “Whether playing solo, as a trio, or in other combinations, I think they’ll add a strong component.”
Also debuting this year is uilleann piper Joey Abarta, regarded as among the best at playing that iconic Irish instrument. Although often on tour, Abarta has nonetheless become a fixture in Boston’s Celtic music scene, performing at The Burren, BCMFest, and the Irish Cultural Centre of New England and helping anchor many area sessions. He’ll be joined by his frequent accompanist, guitar and bouzouki player Owen Marshall, a member of the Maine quartet The Press Gang.
“We’re so fortunate in Boston to have musicians like Joey, who knows the piping tradition inside and out,” says O’Donovan.
Rounding out the musicians’ roster are three frequent contributors to “Christmas Celtic Sojourn”: Natalie Haas, one of the foremost pioneers of folk-style cello; bassist Chico Huff; and percussionist Ben Wittman.
“You can’t overlook what Natalie, Chico, and Ben have brought to the show,” says O’Donovan. “They add such exquisite touches to the music, and make the overall vibe that much better as a result. And they’re consummate professionals who are a pleasure to be around.”
The show’s vocal selections have attained equal prominence during its 15 years, and O’Donovan feels Gilchrist’s work as assistant music director will provide further enhancement. Gilchrist also will join O’Donovan and his wife, Lindsay, in singing lead and harmony.
Special guests this year are Mairi Campbell, who has received equal acclaim for her talents as a singer as well as a musician, winning honors in both categories at the Scots Trad Music Awards; and four-part vocal harmony group Windborne, whose members grew up in the traditional song and dance communities around New England [see separate story].
“Mairi is familiar to many for her very fine version of ‘Auld Lang Syne,’ which was used in an episode of the ‘Sex and the City’ TV series,” says O’Donovan, “but she has a lengthy and impressive career resume that makes her an ideal addition to the ‘Christmas Celtic Sojourn’ cast.
“It’s a pleasure to welcome Windborne: They are part of a generation that grew up in the wellspring of folk music found in New England through events and activities like Revels, Village Harmony and ‘Nowell Sing We Clear.’ Their energy and spirit, as well as a repertoire that ranges across many cultures, are perfect for the show.”
Kevin Doyle, another popular “Sojourn” veteran and a National Heritage Fellowship winner, will be dance director for 2017, joined by Maryland-based Teelin Irish Dance Company director and choreographer Maureen Berry, who has produced feature-length stage shows such as “StepDance,” “Sláinte” and last year’s “Celtic Storm.” As always, the Harney Academy of Irish Dance from Walpole will make appearances during the show.
“Kevin has that real sense of showmanship to go with his excellent dancing,” says O’Donovan. “Maureen is used to the big-production atmosphere, and is working diligently with Kevin to present masterful dance routines. As for the Harney Academy, we’ve expanded their part to include some of their alumni, who are now young adults. It goes to show you what happens over 15 years.
“All in all, this will be a special ‘Christmas Celtic Sojourn,’ certainly because it’s the 15th one and because of the new direction we’ve taken,” says O’Donovan. “Lots of moving parts, to be sure. At the same time, we try to make the show as a kind of oasis in a crazy world full of negativity and strife. We want people to feel the warmth of being together and reconnecting with humanity during the holiday season.”
For ticket information, show times and other details for “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn,” see www.wgbh.org/celtic.