Concert Review: “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn” — A Welcome Holiday Tradition

A Christmas Celtic Sojourn is uplifting and spirited fun; the performers are having at least as good a time as the audience, and that is always a winning formula.

A Christmas Celtic Sojourn, through December 21 at venues in Rockport, Worcester, New Bedford and Boston.

Children dancing -- one of the festive parts of "A Celtic Christmas Sojourn."

Children dancing — one of the festive parts of “A Celtic Christmas Sojourn.”

By Glenn Rifkin

Brian O’Donovan’s A Christmas Celtic Sojourn is just beginning its second decade and it has already become a local holiday tradition. The reason it has caught on is that it works in a magical, enticing way that reflects the wisdom and talent of its creator. The Sojourn is sort of like a dish made from a prized recipe – perfectly flavored, but often tweaked by O’Donovan each year to remain fresh, vibrant, and utterly satiating.

For the uninitiated, A Christmas Celtic Sojourn is the brainchild of the impresario O’Donovan, whose weekly radio program A Celtic Sojourn is heard on WGBH public radio. A musical and literary Irishman who brings the spirit of County Cork with him to the stage, O’Donovan conceived of the Christmas show as an old-fashioned radio variety hour featuring traditional seasonal Scotch, Irish, and Welsh music, poetry, and dance. Mixed in are favorite Christmas carols performed beautifully and soulfully with appreciative audience participation.

This year’s rendition, which opened on Friday night at the Cutler Majestic Theater in Boston, manages to pull together all the right pieces. The whole is far greater than the sum of its parts, those that have their flaws. This is not a performance that begs for parsed analysis. This is just uplifting and spirited fun; the performers are having at least as good a time as the audience and that is always a winning formula. O’Donovan, as always, relies on the talents of artistic director Paula Plum and music director Seamus Egan to pull together a rousing and moving two-and-a-half hour performance.

Egan, with his Irish-American band Solas, anchors the musical offerings throughout the show. Given that Solas is a sought-after band (usually getting top billing), having it as the foundation for Sojourn pretty much guarantees a high level of musical performance for the evening. And on this night they didn’t disappoint. Egan is a world-class talent who plays banjo, guitar, flute, and mandolin: he also arranges the musical offerings for the show. Solas’ violinist Winifred Horan, bedecked in her usual flamboyant wardrobe, adds a whirling, soaring fiddle during the several reels that raise the show’s pulse.

This year, O’Donovan added Lumiere, an Irish duo from West Kerry, to perform the ballads. The sweet voices of Eilis Kennedy and Pauline Scanlon were pleasing but unremarkable; the singers were not quite strong enough to serve the anchor role that was required of them. In a new twist, O’Donovan reached out to Appalachia, “the kin” as he called them, and invited the Foghorn Stringband to join the Sojourn for the first time. This band, from the Pacific Northwest (a fair distance from Appalachia), brought a welcome alternative sound to the evening, providing an old-timey “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” feel to the mix. As usual, the featured guests perform with Solas — musical boundaries are happily crossed and re-crossed. A six-fiddler reel raised the roof and caused some serious clapping and foot-stomping in the audience.

What really roused the audience, however, were the Irish stepdancers who sprinted onstage from the wings and literally lifted the proceedings off the ground. The beautiful red-haired Cara Butler, Nathan “Crazy Legs” Pilatzke, Sarah Jacobson, and Matt Gordon punctuated the evening with leaps and twirls that seemed to defy the laws of physics and gravity. Pilatzke’s legs do indeed go ‘insane” — at times they appear to be in danger of flying off in multiple directions.

But the loudest cheers were reserved for the remarkable young dancers from the Harney Academy of Irish Dance in Walpole, Mass. These children, no more than seven years old, were both adorable and talented and won the audience’s collective heart throughout the evening. It’s only a matter of time before O’Donovan figures out a way to add puppies (Irish Setters perhaps) into the entertainment mix.

What binds the Sojourn together is the folksy informality that O’Donovan brings to the show. Seated in a leather easy chair by the Christmas tree, O’Donovan reads poetry by Dylan Thomas and reminisces about his own Irish childhood in County Cork. His stories are tinged with humor and grace and, inspired by in his lilting Irish accent, the feeling of Christmas seems to waft like the smell of gingerbread over the audience. It isn’t easy to come off as authentic rather than schmaltzy at this time of year, but O’Donovan manages to do so with little discernible effort. At times, the evening seems like a spirited family gathering: Lindsay O’Donovan, Brian’s wife, is a fixture with her piano accompaniments and vocals. And the audience is invited to contribute caroling and good cheer. Given the ever-increasing commercialism and lazy cynicism that comes with the holidays, an evening of beautiful music, dancing, and laughter makes for a particularly invigorating alternative.

Glenn Rifkin is a veteran journalist and author who has covered business for many publications including The New York Times for more than 25 years. Among his books are Radical Marketing and The Ultimate Entrepreneur. His efforts as an arts critic and food writer represent a new and exciting direction.

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