Christmas Celtic Sojourn: a New England tradition

“I often describe my style of presenting as gathering people in my house, with the broadcast signal extending the walls of my living room,” says Brian O’Donovan, host of the broadcast and internet radio program Celtic Sojourn. His relaxed way of sharing a wide range of Celtic music worked especially well at the winter holidays, O’Donovan noticed. Ten years ago, he had the idea of extending the idea even further, taking it to the stage.

Christmas Celtic Sojourn in three dimensions proved an instant hit with audiences in the Boston area, which is where O’Donovan’s show is heard on public radio station WGBH. “My initial idea was that it would be small and fun,” he says, “something that would be easy to pull off in a small hall or a church — but we got the Somerville Theater for it and it sold out– rapidly. The next year we added a second show, and that sold out so rapidly that we had to add a third show, and then the Cutler Majestic Theater became available and we sold out five shows there — and the rest, as they say, is history.”

Christmas Celtic Sojourn will be marking ten years as it begins its week of shows around New England on 15 December. Across the years the backing musicians have included members of the ground breaking Irish American band Solas, including John Doyle and Seamus Egan, and such top notch artists as fiddlers Hanneke Cassel and Lissa Schneckenburger, Shannon Heaton on flute and whistles and Matt Heaton on guitar.

Guests over the years have included Cherish the Ladies, Maddy Prior, Karine Polwart, Robbie O’Connell, Aoife O’Donovan, Ruth Moody, Navan, Chris Stout and Catriona McKay, and Heidi Talbot. In addition to songs and tunes, there are both adult and young dancers, and there spoken world pieces and readings of holiday stories as well.

The Cutler Majestic in Boston and the theaters in other cities where the show now appears are chosen for their warmth and intimacy and “gravitas, if you can apply such a word to an object,” O’Donovan says. “I want the audience to be a part of things as much as they can, and in a way to make the theater a character in the play too, a warm, inviting place.” O’Donovan is from Clonakilty in Cork, in Ireland. “I enjoy seeing people going with the arc of our program, because it kind of mirrors my own growing up and even my own traditions after I moved to this country, gathering friends and family at this time of year and just having a good old fashioned hooley.”

So what is Christmas Celtic Sojourn doing to mark its tenth anniversary? “We wanted to look at the highlights and celebrate them, while continuing to bring in new people and new content and forge ahead.” O’Donovan says. The members of Solas will return, as well the harmony group Navan, who were there at the start. Top cellist Natalie Haas will be back, as will singer Lindsay O’Donovan. Mick McAuley and Eamon McElholm will add their voices, Winifred Horan will be there with her fiddle, and harpist Catriona McKay and fiddler Chris Stout from Scotland, who made quite a stir with their original music in 2010, will return. Among the newcomers this season are singer Alyth McCormack from Scotland and Jon and Nathan Pilatzke and Cara Butler, who will bring Irish dance infused with influences from the Ottawa Valley in Canada. Audience favorite young dancers from the Harney Academy of Irish Dance in Walpole will be on hand again as well.

“Singing songs that are sentimental, hearing somebody recite or read a piece of poetry or tell a story, throwing in a bit of dancing, and the audience being a part of all that — I think that what we provide is a respite from the frenzy of the commercialization of the holiday period,” O’Donovan says. “ I really enjoy that, and seeing people going with that.”

Find out about tickets and schedules for Christmas Celtic Sojourn

Won’t be making it to New England this December? A Christmas Celtic Sojourn, Live chronicles an evening at the Cutler Majestic from 2006 on dvd and as an audio recording
on cd.

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