New voices, new sounds added to the mix for Christmas Celtic Sojourn

Northern Irish traditional singer Len Graham, Boston-area fiddle band Halali, and cross-genre Canadian singer Ruth Moody of The Wailin’ Jennys join the cast for the ninth annual “Christmas Celtic Sojourn,” the popular holiday-themed showcase of music, dance, songs, and stories in the Celtic tradition that kicks off a four-city tour Dec. 9 before its customary run at Boston’s Cutler Majestic Theatre December 16-18.

This year’s “Sojourn” will spotlight two instruments new to the show: the hammer dulcimer, played by Boston’s Simon Chrisman; and the Uilleann pipes, in the hands of Kieran O’Hare. In addition, music director Seamus Egan of the band Solas will once again bring his assortment of instruments—including banjo, mandolin, guitar and whistles—to the festivities, while another “Sojourn” perennial, bassist Chico Huff, returns as well. Making his debut is Ben Wittman, a percussionist who has recorded with such performers as Rosanne Cash, Eileen Ivers, Paul Simon ,and Laurie Anderson.
Kevin Doyle, whose dancing has already made him a “Sojourn” mainstay, this year also takes on the mantle of dance director. And the youthful members of the Walpole-based Harney Academy of Irish Dance, another fixture of the show, will return for their crowd-pleasing turns.
Assuming his usual role as the show’s host and guiding spirit will be Brian O’Donovan, of WGBH-FM’s “A Celtic Sojourn,” who sees the 2011 edition as a veritable feast for vocals.
“I’m looking forward to hearing a lot of lovely harmony singing,” says O’Donovan. “When you have two absolutely wonderful singers like Len Graham and Ruth Moody around, you know you’re going to have a treat for the ears. And, of course, with Halali—Laura Cortese, Lissa Schneckenburger, Hanneke Cassel, and Flynn Cohen—you have a versatile group who excel at singing as well as playing.”
Graham is one of Ireland’s most respected traditional singers, O’Donovan says, distinguished as much for his scholarship and knowledge of the music—especially that of Northern Ireland—as for his vocal ability. “Len is very conscious of, and conscientious about, the tradition. He spent time with a lot of the older ‘roots’ singers from Northern Ireland, and he is very well-versed in the region’s Protestant traditions. It’s great to have him with us.”
Although Moody is known for her work in more contemporary musical styles, whether with The Wailin’ Jennys or previously with Scruj MacDuhk (later known as The Duhks), she has had a longstanding interest in traditional music, including the sean-nos Irish singing style. A frequent performer on “A Prairie Home Companion,” Moody, who last year released her second solo album, “The Garden,” was a winner of the Juno songwriting award and a finalist in the USA Songwriting Competition.
“We often like to blend the traditional and contemporary styles, and see how they relate,” says O’Donovan. “Ruth has been working on a Gordon Lightfoot composition, ‘Song for a Winter’s Night,’ that she’ll perform in the show. It’s just beautiful, and really fits well into the ‘Christmas Celtic Sojourn’ frame of mind.”
O’Donovan is especially pleased to have Halali on board, given that all four members have fashioned such successful individual careers and thus rarely have time or opportunity to play together: Cortese has developed both a talent as a songwriter and a fondness for multiple collaborations across musical genres; Cassel is acknowledged as one of the masters of the “American-Scottish” fiddle style, and frequently tours with her own trio; Schneckenburger has become a font of New England traditional song and dance music; and Cohen, the group’s guitarist and a member of the “alt-trad” band Annalivia, is preparing to release his third solo CD.
“Collectively and individually, these four have made a big impact on the music scene here in Boston over the past decade,” says O’Donovan. “It’s important to note how much of an influence they’ve had on younger musicians as well. They’re just a whole lot of fun to have around, and they’ll definitely bring a lot of energy to the show.”
O’Donovan says he, Egan and the show’s artistic director, Paula Plum [see separate story] always look for “new sounds to add to the mix.” This year, he feels, they’ve definitely made good on that quest. “I’ve hankered after the hammer dulcimer for a while now, because it has such a mesmerizing, resonant quality to it. And Simon Chrisman, who is a member of an up and coming locally-based group called The Bee Eaters, has a fascinating style of playing the dulcimer, with that ‘old-meets-new’ dynamic.”
The addition of O’Hare this year is also gratifying for O’Donovan. “We’ve always wanted to feature the Uilleann pipes, but it just hasn’t worked out to date. Christy O’Leary, who was with us a couple of years ago, is a fine piper, but at the time he had an injury and wasn’t able to do very much on them. Now, with Kieran—who has played with the likes of Mick Moloney, Liz Carroll, Danny Doyle, and Niamh Parsons—we’ll finally be able to show the full range of the instrument’s capabilities.”
This year will see two new venues for the show, Shalin Liu Performance Centre in Rockport (already sold out at press time) and Zeiterion Theatre in New Bedford, along with return engagements at Worcester’s Hanover Theatre and The Music Hall in Portsmouth, NH. “We’re very fortunate to have so much support across the board,” says O’Donovan. “Nothing is a slam dunk in this day and age, obviously, so it’s very heartening to see that people feel so strongly about ‘Christmas Celtic Sojourn’ to make it part of their itinerary.”
Perhaps that’s because wherever “Sojourn” goes, the aim—as O’Donovan explains—is to make the show feel as if it’s a gathering of family and friends in one’s living room, an atmosphere underscored by the comfy chair he sits in while on stage as he shares stories or reminiscences related to the Christmas season. There’s a paradox to such occasions: On the one hand, these traditions and customs families observe are timeless; yet time marches on, and families experience changes as a result. So it is with O’Donovan and his wife, Lindsay, who for the first time in the show’s history will be without their youngest daughter, Fionnuala, now a freshman in college.
“Nuala was still in elementary school when ‘Christmas Celtic Sojourn’ began,” recalls O’Donovan. “She really became part of the show early on: Here was this little girl, singing a beautiful Welsh song a cappella in the middle of the stage, and [vocal trio] Navan and I joined in with her. Definitely a special moment for us. We’ll certainly miss having her there.”
For ticket information and other details about “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn” performances, see

Celtic Sojourn’s artistic director keeps
focus on the show’s ‘distinctive pulse’

by Sean Smith
With all the talented singers, musicians and dancers who appear each year in “Christmas Celtic Sojourn”—including Robbie O’Connell, Liz Carroll, John Doyle, Navan, Solas, Cara Dillon, Kieran Jordan, and Nic Gareiss, to name only a few—you could practically just raise the curtain and let them all go about their business. Right?
Yes, you could, says the show’s artistic director Paula Plum — but then it wouldn’t be “Christmas Celtic Sojourn.”
“There is a distinctive pulse to ‘Christmas Celtic Sojourn,’ and it’s based on switching mood and tempo in a very deliberate way,” says Plum, who has been with the show since it began in 2003 (the 2011 edition begins Dec, 9 in Worcester and finishes up at the Cutler Majestic Theatre in Boston December 16-18). “I think of William Butler Yeats’s comment about the Irish and their ‘abiding sense of tragedy,’ which sustains them ‘through temporary periods of joy.’ We try to polarize the show along those lines, to create variety within each act so that you’re moving through a range of emotions.”
It is Plum’s job to make real the artistic vision of “Christmas Celtic Sojourn” creator and guiding spirit Brian O’Donovan, who conceived the show as a social event, not simply entertainment: an “intimate gathering” to celebrate the holiday season, and provide comfort and reassurance amidst the tumult of modern life. Fostering a living-room kind of intimacy in large theaters with a troupe of performers that includes school-age kids as well as adults may not be the easiest task—especially for someone who was a relative newcomer to Celtic music—but then Plum has gotten used to playing all kinds of roles in her career.
She has earned awards for her acting in such productions as “Lost in Yonkers,” “Miss Price,” “Wit” and her solo show, “Plum Pudding.” Her honors also include the Boston Theatre Critics Association Elliot Norton Award for Sustained Excellence (past recipients include Sir Ian McKellen and Julie Harris) and a Distinguished Alumna Award from the Boston University School for the Arts. In addition to acting—in films and TV as well as on stage—Plum has broadened her talents over the years as a producer, director and teacher.
So when O’Donovan met Plum several years ago as the two were involved in Revels, the annual holiday season-themed production that draws on folk and traditional music and customs, he knew he had found the right person to help cultivate his own idea for a Christmas/New Year’s-oriented show.
“Paula has done a tremendous job for us right from the beginning,” says O’Donovan, who received an enthusiastic endorsement for Plum from no less than Revels Artistic Director Paddy Swanson. “She was the natural choice for artistic director, and while at the start she didn’t have very much experience with Celtic music, she has learned a lot, and that has made her contributions all the more valuable.”
Plum describes her responsibilities for “Christmas Celtic Sojourn” as encompassing “everything you see.” That includes the performers and what they perform, of course, but also when and how they enter or exit the stage. Of equal, if not greater, concern to Plum are matters like the stage set design and props, the sound and especially the lighting: “Lighting is everything,” declares Plum, who praises the work Dan Jentzen does for the show. “If you have a stage with great lights, you can tell any story.”
Actually, says Plum, even before she starts hashing out the when, where, and how of “Christmas Celtic Sojourn,” she has to focus on the collective who. “It’s about forming a group in which everyone understands what you’re trying to accomplish, and really wants to be part of that effort. I have to create that environment, so the people who are working on the show not only feel good about how they use their individual talents and abilities, but how they collaborate with others.”
Fortunately, she says, the show has been blessed by the presence of so many who see the big picture. “I can’t name a person who hasn’t been absolutely lovely and helpful. They all want to create something wonderful.”
O’Donovan says Plum made a favorable impression right off the bat with the first “Christmas Celtic Sojourn,” which featured Cherish the Ladies among the performers. “During the preparations, I got an e-mail from [band leader] Joanie Madden saying, ‘Who is this Paula Plum? She sent me a list of everything that’s happening on the show, and it’s all spot on.’ Now, Joanie doesn’t necessarily give out compliments like that, so you certainly had to take it as a good sign that Paula knew what she was doing.”
So, how do you even start putting together something like “Christmas Celtic Sojourn”? As Plum explains, it’s both easier and harder than it looks. First, you begin with the number 30. That’s approximately the total number of individual segments making up the show, about 15 per act. Then it’s a case of “plugging things in”: the overture, a song, a recitation, a set of tunes, a dance, and so on. This is where Plum, O’Donovan, and music director Seamus Egan (who also usually plays in the show’s “house band”) eyeball the roster of performers who have been invited for that year’s production, and figure out who goes when, what they’ll do, and whether it’ll be a solo or a collaboration with others.
“Each of the performers brings a unique offering, and we think of the ways to utilize them,” she says. “Sometimes, we use a segment to ‘introduce’ a singer, or musician, or band to the audience. Other times, we want to convey a particular mood, or some aspect of the holiday season. Or perhaps we want to spotlight something about a music tradition. We might even ‘borrow’ from other cultures: For example, last year one of the performers was Chris Stout, a fiddler from the Shetland Islands, which are Scottish but also have a lot of Scandinavian influences. So through Chris, we were able to get a glimpse of a tradition that is not really Celtic yet has some elements in common nonetheless.”
A perennial highlight, for audience and show organizers alike, is the appearance of the children from the Harney Academy of Irish Dance, who typically do a high-speed set dance near the end of Act One. “The kids are always a ‘gasp moment’ in the show, even for people who’ve seen it before,” says Plum. “We try to find other spots throughout the show where they can play a part, like listening to Brian tell a story, or performing with an adult dancer. They just always give the show a boost.”
The time that tries those “Christmas Celtic Sojourn” souls comes in early December when everyone gathers for the rehearsal period prior to the inaugural performance. Given the touring schedules of some of the performers—especially those who live abroad—it’s simply not possible to bring them all together any earlier, so the nearly year-long planning and preparation now comes to fruition in the space of a few hectic, intense days. But the confidence Plum and O’Donovan have in the cast is invariably rewarded, sometimes in unexpected ways.
“The year we had Chris Stout and his musical partner, harpist Catriona McKay, we wanted to open the second act with an old Irish air,” recalls Plum. “Chris didn’t like the idea, so he had sent us a recording of him and Catriona playing a tune she had written, ‘Isflak’—Swedish for ‘ice flow.’ We listened and really weren’t wild about it. But when they actually played the tune for us live, my eyebrows were singed—it was such virtuosic, expressive playing. So they did ‘Isflak’ and it was a great success.
“This goes to one of Brian’s major beliefs, and what the show is all about: There is simply nothing like hearing music live.”
With “Christmas Celtic Sojourn” now having become an on-the-road production—this year it’ll be making stops in Worcester and Portsmouth, NH, and for the first time, New Bedford and Rockport—before its run at the Cutler Majestic Theatre, the demands on the cast and crew are greater, and that includes Plum. “You have to coordinate the lighting and sound for each theater, which takes some time. But everybody’s attitude is great—they understand this is a marathon, and so we just need to pace ourselves.”
“There can be so many things you feel are out of your control, especially as the premiere date draws closer—when in fact, everything is actually coming together. But that’s what happens in theater, time and time again. It’s the beauty of the whole experience.”