by Sean Smith
Fresh from the success of the virtual “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn” in December, WGBH broadcaster Brian O’Donovan and his dedicated production team, plus a cohort of accomplished music and dance performers – including some from Greater Boston – will present an online version of the annual “St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn,” from March 11 to March 14, and on March 17.
Joining O’Donovan, the show’s creator and host, will be Newfoundland singer Matthew Byrne; Boston-based Irish fiddlers Nathan Gourley and Laura Feddersen; Scottish/Cape Breton-style fiddler Hanneke Cassel and Québécois guitarist Yann Falquet; local uilleann piper Joey Abarta; highly touted traditional Irish duo Caitlín Nic Gabhann and Ciarán Ó Maonaigh; and sean-nos, or “old-style” Irish dancer Emma O’Sullivan.
Also performing will be guitarist-pianist-vocalist Keith Murphy, who plays music from his native Canadian Maritimes as well as the Quebec, New England, and Celtic traditions, and serves as the “St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn” music director.
In addition, there will be a special appearance by the Rasa String Quartet, which has its roots in the New England Conservatory of Music.
According to O’Donovan, the show will follow the blueprint provided by “Christmas Celtic Sojourn”: He and the locally based performers – Gourley, Feddersen, Cassel, Falquet, and Abarta – “bubbled up” recently at the Cabot Theatre in Beverly to work on the production. They serve as the core ensemble, with Byrne, Nic Gabhann-Ó Maonaigh, and O’Sullivan beaming in from remote locations.
And, as with “Christmas Celtic Sojourn,” “St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn” performances will be presented in collaboration with a partner venue: the Hanover Theater in Worcester (March 11); Shalin Liu Performance Center, Rockport (March 12); Sanders Theatre, Cambridge (March 13); Cabot Theatre, Beverly (March 14); these shows, and the March 17 WGBH special edition, will all begin at 7:30 p.m. as if in “real time” and then be available on demand exclusively for those who buy tickets.
“We learned a lot from our ‘Christmas Celtic Sojourn’ experience,” says O’Donovan. “One thing we learned is that people are desperate for a semblance of their old lives, and that includes enjoying live music. Just as importantly, they miss the routine that goes with it, where you head out to the venue, settle into your seat, and anticipate the dimming of the lights and rise of the curtain. We heard how some people gathered together – safely – to have dinner and cocktails while they watched ‘A Christmas Celtic Sojourn.’ Clearly, they were glad to have an event serve as a social occasion they could all enjoy.
“Which is why we are again doing this as a ‘real-time’ performance – here, you can click on the link to the show five or 10 minutes beforehand and see a generic countdown clock, and we’ll stream some slides and St. Patrick’s Day music until the show begins. The show will have two sets of approximately 40 to 45 minutes each, and there’ll be a 10-minute intermission – again, just as if we were all at a theater.”
Though it included familiar elements of in-person, pre-COVID performance events, “Christmas Celtic Sojourn” went well beyond a conventional livestream-from-the-living-room approach, with high-quality video, audio, and editing, and other top-shelf production values, seamlessly synching up the local and remote performers. That will be the case again with the “St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn,” with some additional flourishes: O’Donovan will narrate a drone video flyover of his hometown of Clonakilty in Cork, for example, and musician Harry Giles will demonstrate his recipe for Irish coffee from Somerville’s beloved Irish pub The Burren.
“Many people – and we had almost 6,000 join us – said they were moved by ‘Christmas Celtic Sojourn’; it really struck a chord with them,” says O’Donovan. “We spent a lot of time talking and planning, going through what would be needed to make the show as good as it could be. Why? We felt it was very important to give the performers a platform where they could shine, to create an individual event with a personality all its own. The technology enabled us to produce something meaningful.
“Because ‘Christmas Celtic Sojourn’ and ‘St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn’ each has its own vibe, we’ve made the effort, again, to give the latter event something special that resonates with the audience. So, for example, this year I’ll be able to say, ‘Hey, check out where I’m from’ and give folks a look at my Irish hometown, which fits right in with the St. Patrick’s Day spirit.”
The virtual approach also will enhance a “St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn” staple: the singalong to “The Leaving of Liverpool” that concludes the first set. Audience members are encouraged to submit videos of themselves singing, and clapping along to, the chorus of this longtime Clancy Brothers favorite (precise directions are provided on the show’s website, celticsojournlive.com), and some will be incorporated into the end product.
A look at the 2021 “St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn” performers:
•Matthew Byrne is renowned for his rich tenor voice and sensitive, empathetic treatment of songs from the vocal tradition of his homeland, and his own family. Byrne has won two Canadian Folk Music Awards “Traditional Album of the Year” honors for his recordings; he is preparing to record his fourth studio album, to be produced by renowned English folk musician Martin Simpson.
•Spouses Caitlín Nic Gabhann and Ciarán Ó Maonaigh both come from venerable Irish music families and have been heralded as among the vanguard of a new generation of traditional musicians. A native of County Meath, Nic Gabhann is a three-time winner of the All-Ireland Fleadh Cheoil on concertina, a talented step dancer who was in the “Riverdance” troupe, and has performed with, among others, Paddy Keenan and Cherish the Ladies. Ó Maonaigh, a former TG4 “Young Musician of the Year” award winner, grew up steeped in the Donegal fiddle style. Their album with Cathal Ó Curráin, “The High Seas,” was one of the most highly praised Irish/Celtic releases of 2018.
•She may be an All-Ireland champion in “old-style” dance, but Galway native Emma O’Sullivan is well-versed in new media: She has gained worldwide attention for the viral videos she has posted – shared by some 20 million people – of her energetic street performances. Her tours have taken her around the globe, including one that featured a seven-month residency with legendary country singer Dolly Parton.
•Since arriving in Boston several years ago within a few months of each other, Nathan Gourley and Laura Feddersen have become mainstays of the area’s Irish scene, whether at sessions, ceilis, or concerts. Their fiddling, as spotlighted in their 2015 album “Life Is All Checkered,” represents what they call “the American style of Irish music”: an amalgam of the styles and influences that developed over time in places like Boston, New York City, Chicago, and wherever else strong Irish music communities have thrived – offshoots of the regional traditions that originated in Ireland, but also dependent on the individual player who’s playing it.
•Another fixture of Boston’s Celtic scene is uilleann piper Joey Abarta, who has performed locally and elsewhere frequently, including in a duo with Nathan Gourley, as well as with Mick Moloney and the group The Green Fields of America. He also took part in the special 2018 production, “Seeking Sanctuary,” an immigration-themed event at the Boston Center for the Arts that featured a commissioned piece by Charlie Lennon, one of Ireland’s most distinguished tradition-influenced musicians/composers.
•Hanneke Cassel and Yann Falquet represent a blending of distinctive music traditions infused by contemporary influences and styles. Cassel’s expressive, emotive, and energetic brand of American Scottish fiddle – featuring many of her own compositions as well as tunes from Scottish and Cape Breton traditions – has been highly influential as well as popular in the Celtic music world. Falquet is an active, creative acoustic guitar player on the Québécois scene who has drawn inspiration from the playing of the accompanists of different cultures (Brittany, Scandinavia, Ireland, North America). He appears on Cassel’s recently released album, “Over the Sea to Skye.”
•A familiar figure in the Boston/New England folk scene for some 30 years, Keith Murphy has been part of numerous collaborations, notably with his wife, fiddler Becky Tracy – with whom he recorded the 2020 album “Golden” – the Boston-based fiddle ensemble Childsplay, and fiddlers like Brian Conway and Hanneke Cassel. He has also forged a successful career as a soloist, an engaging singer with a repertoire drawn from his native Newfoundland as well as Irish, English, Scottish, and French traditions, and as a masterful arranger.
•A union of different cultural backgrounds that formed at NEC in 2019, the Rasa String Quartet has become a progressive force on the New England chamber music circuit, performing in less conventional venues such as house concerts, local clubs and breweries, nursing homes ,and even health care settings. Their members are the Irish-American violinist Maura Shawn Scanlin – who performs as part of the Celtic-American duo Rakish (among the cast in the 2020 “Christmas Celtic Sojourn”) – Japanese-American violinist Kiyoshi Hayashi, Spanish-Vietnamese violist Claudia Do Minh Ramos and Korean-American cellist Eunghee Cho.
O’Donovan had commissioned the quartet to resurrect a mid-20th century classical composition, “Meath Pastoral,” by Arthur Duff, for last year’s “St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn”; the production’s show last March in Rockport – right before the COVID lockdown began – was their only performance of the work.
“We’re very happy to have the Rasa String Quartet with us again,” he says. “They take chamber music in some exciting directions, and Maura – a highly trained classical violinist but with a folk/trad sensibility – is certainly one reason for that; however, they are all talented and inventive musicians and will be a big part of this year’s show. They’ll be accompanying Keith on a lovely, moving traditional song, ‘Crossing the Bar,’ as well as another audience favorite ‘Will You Go Lassie Go?’”
However much O’Donovan may sing the praises of virtual performances, he is clear about his preference: “Will they ever replace live music? No. No way. But they can certainly supplement live music, perhaps whet our appetites for the real thing, and provide some creative possibilities as to how music, and other kinds of art, can be presented.
“I think we’ve all seen in this past year how valuable art is to us, especially art with a strong sense of history and tradition. It reminds us how humanity has managed to outlast those forces which have challenged us: pandemics, politics, or whatever else.”
For more about “A St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn,” go to celticsojournlive.com.