Back for its 12th year, “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn” will once again turn to new faces and sounds as well as familiar favorites in celebrating the Christmas holiday season through music, song, dance, and storytelling from Irish, Scottish, and other, related Celtic traditions.
The annual production, hosted as always by its creator and guiding spirit, WGBH radio host Brian O’Donovan, will be on stage at the Cutler Majestic Theatre in Boston for a slate of performances from Dec. 12 to Dec. 21, and also at venues in Worcester (Dec. 17) and New Bedford (Dec. 14); the Dec. 15 show at Rockport is already sold out.
This year will feature an exploration of the ties between Irish and Appalachian music with the presence of the Foghorn Stringband, a highly acclaimed old-time quartet from Portland, Ore. Fiddler Kevin Burke, a former member of the pioneering Irish group The Bothy Band, also will make his “Christmas Celtic Sojourn” debut, as will Lumiere, the duo of vocalists Pauline Scanlon and Eilis Kennedy.
The show’s music director, talented multi-instrumentalist Seamus Egan, and his renowned band Solas return with a slightly different line-up: In addition to Egan, fiddler Winifred Horan, guitarist Eamon McElholm and long-time collaborator Chico Huff on bass, Solas will have Connemara accordionist Johnny Connolly sitting in for Mick McAuley, who is in the Broadway musical “The Last Ship,” composed by the pop star Sting. The Sojourn Horns, a brass trio led by Dietrich Strausse that premiered last year, also will be back.
A quartet of featured dancers will further enliven the proceedings: Cara Butler and Nathan Pilatzke, members of The StepCrew, rejoin the cast; also present will be Matt Gordon – who also plays fiddle and harmonica – and Sarah Jacobson, a former student of the Walpole-based Harney Academy of Irish Dance, whose youthful representatives will make their traditional, always well-received appearance at the show.
Reflecting on the evolution of “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn,” O’Donovan says, “Last year, we officially began our second decade, and so we changed up a few things: We introduced a new stage design and lighting, and included as part of the set a painting by local artist Vincent Crotty – there’ll be another panel added this year. It was our way of saying, ‘OK, we’ve reached this milestone, let’s have a new beginning.’ So this year we’re holding onto that new look, even as we continue to uphold the qualities on which the show has always been based, those things we love about the Christmas season: shared family memories, the warmth of friends, and music to lift the spirit.”
The word “family” has a musical connotation in the show, explains O’Donovan, hence this year’s performance by the Foghorn Stringband, whose members are Caleb Klauder, Stephen “Sammy” Lind, Nadine Landry, and Reeb Willms.
“I’ve always liked the idea of having a Christmas gathering with ‘cousins,’ bringing in more of the kin,” he says. “In the past, we’ve had Appalachian and American music in the show, and this year we will affirm the connection between both sides of the Atlantic with the Foghorn Stringband.
“What’s special about them is, they really get to the heart of old-time music and the way it was played in bygone eras. They have that old Southern radio vibe, where they gather around one microphone, so there’s a very folksy, homespun dimension to their sound.”
Burke, meanwhile, represents another version of the Irish-American bond.
“What people may not realize is, while Kevin grew up playing Irish music, and of course was part of a legendary Irish band, he actually started his career playing with Arlo Guthrie,” says O’Donovan. “So Kevin was steeped in Americana, and it’s something he’s kept up with even as he went on to play with Patrick Street, Celtic Fiddle Festival and in various other collaborations. “
Solas, of course, has its own Irish-American character: The band’s core members are either Irish natives or of Irish descent, and its music frequently makes the journey between Ireland and America, as evidenced by its most recent release, “Shamrock City,” inspired by the life of Egan’s great-great uncle, an Irish émigré who made his way to Montana in the early 20th century.
O’Donovan – who credits Egan and artistic director Paula Plum as two mainstays whose contributions have been integral to the show’s success – says Connolly’s temporary stint with the band, especially in the context of “Christmas Celtic Sojourn,” will make for fascinating listening.
“Johnny is real rock-solid trad, and brings that pure-drop sensitivity to his playing. He’ll certainly work very well with Seamus, Winifred, Eamon and Chico, as well as the other musicians in the show.”
Lumiere’s introduction to “Christmas Celtic Sojourn” is a reflection of O’Donovan’s penchant for giving the show a distinctive female voice, or in this case, two of them. “Eilis has a traditional, sean-nos Kerry style of singing, while Pauline is inclined to a kind of younger, more diverse sound,” he says. “But they blend so well together: They can do songs in Irish, songs from elsewhere in the folk tradition like ‘The Streets of Derry’ or ‘My Dearest Dear,’ and then they’ll go onto something contemporary, like Suzanne Vega’s ‘The Queen and the Soldier.’ And they pull it off, with some marvelous harmonies to boot.”
Add the versatile Gordon – a former member of the Fiddle Puppet Dancers, which took part in the London debut of “Riverdance” – and his clog-dancing and fiddling to the mix, says O’Donovan, “and there’ll be quite a few opportunities for some cross-over during the show. It’ll be a right big hooley: the Americans coming to Clare, or the Irish going to the Appalachians.”
Similarly, Butler and Pilatzke bring with them a mix of influences and styles, honed through their involvement in The StepCrew, the high-energy show that spotlights Irish and Ottawa Valley stepdance and tap.
“Cara, Nathan, Matt and Sarah will be featured in different ways, sometimes solo or as a quartet, and they will definitely make for an interesting combination,” says O’Donovan.
Jacobson’s roots as an alumnus of the Harney Academy not only speaks to her dancing pedigree, says O’Donovan, but also helps put in perspective the school’s long association with the show.
“The Harney kids started appearing back in 2008 – unbelievable to think that some of them from that year are getting close to college age now – and it’s become simply impossible to imagine the show without them. They are such a big hit, not only with the audience but the cast members as well. And there’s a good reason for that: Yes, you can’t argue with the cuteness factor, but what’s most important is that they are technically superb dancers, and they really work hard at what they do.”
One other thing to watch – or rather listen – for in this year’s show, adds O’Donovan, will be the Sojourn Horns, who plan to add an extra dynamic twist.
“They were a little nervous last year, it being their first time,” he says. “But they absolutely loved the whole thing, and actively campaigned for getting invited back. So they will be playing an arrangement of a lovely O’Carolan piece, ‘Loftus Jones,’ and they also are going to try their hand at a fast reel. The stakes are high, but if anyone can pull it off, these guys can.”
For ticket information and show times for “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn,” see wgbh.org/celtic.