Music Feature: An Interview with Brian O’Donovan about “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn”

Born from O’Donovan’s long-running WGBH-radio program, A Celtic Sojourn, the Christmas show mixes traditional Irish, Scottish, and Welsh fare with favorite Christmas songs performed with such affecting beauty that it’s reasonable to say you’ve never heard them like this before.

By Glenn Rifkin.

Brian O’Donovan in this year’s A CHRISTMAS CELTIC SOJOURN. Photo by Niko Alexandrou, Eye on the Stage Photography

Experiencing A Christmas Celtic Sojourn at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, MA is not only divine but it feels like the beginning of a beautiful friendship. The Sojourn, celebrating its 10th anniversary, made its Shalin Liu debut last year, and judging by the response to this year’s show, there’s a good bet that one tradition will morph into two. The physical and acoustic beauty of the Shalin Liu is a perfect fit for Brian O’Donovan’s masterful holiday celebration. It is a show best served in an intimate setting, and the Shalin Liu, with its natural wood and stone interior, 350 seats, and marvelous sound, is nothing if not intimate.

And let there be no doubt that A Christmas Celtic Sojourn, just a decade old, has become a holiday staple in and around Boston, now playing in much bigger theaters in Worcester, Derry, NH, and Providence, RI, along with downtown Boston. Though it is broadcast live nationally each year on Public Radio International, this sumptuous feast of music, dance, poetry, and storytelling, all in the woven Celtic Pagan and Christian traditions, must be experienced in person to get its full impact. Born from O’Donovan’s long-running WGBH-radio program, A Celtic Sojourn, the Christmas show mixes traditional Irish, Scottish, and Welsh fare with favorite Christmas songs performed with such affecting beauty that it’s reasonable to say you’ve never heard them like this before.

Among the many reasons for the show’s success over the years is O’Donovan’s unwillingness to stand pat and reheat last year’s leftovers. Every iteration is replete with new faces mixed with a deft touch by O’Donovan, his musical director Seamus Egan and his artistic director Paula Plum. The current show, which will be performed 11 times in front of more than 10,000 people, features Egan and his high-flying group Solas.

Add to the mix, two amazing, Scottish performers, fiddler Chris Stout and harpist Catriona McKay, who brought the crowd out of its seats with some rousing duets. McKay plays the harp in a vigorous, high-energy manner you’ve likely never seen before. This year’s star, the tall and striking, Scottish singer Alyth McCormick, a chanteuse with a remarkable set of pipes, brings down the house with her rendition of Joni Mitchell’s teary Christmas anthem “River” from the Blue album. McCormick, whose voice was aptly described as having “spun-glass fragility belying a sinewy strength,” is a statuesque beauty who tours regularly with The Chieftains. Irish dancers Cara Butler and Jon and Nathan Pilatzke, also part of the Chieftains entourage, add pounding excitement every time they bound out onto the stage.

O’Donovan, 55, is a master craftsman with his Sojourn. It is warm and inviting without getting schmaltzy, and his mix of poetry (Dylan Thomas) along with his own childhood Christmas memories from County Cork adds just the right touch to a memorable evening. O’Donovan is the consummate impresario, and his passionate embrace of Celtic music is the foundation of his radio program which has been on GBH radio since 1985. His many fans would be surprised to learn that he cut his teeth in the entertainment world working for Robert Kraft and the New England Patriots. Hired in 1984 to run stadium events at Sullivan Stadium right after the infamous Michael Jackson Victory Tour, O’Donovan stayed on when Kraft bought the stadium and later the team. O’Donovan spearheaded the effort to create Major League Soccer in the U.S. and became general manager and chief operating officer for the New England Revolution, also owned by the Krafts. He was also instrumental in bringing the World Cup soccer tournament to Foxboro in 1994. Right after Gillette Stadium opened in 2002, he decided it was time to get back into arts and broadcasting full-time.

Arts Fuse spoke to O’Donovan about the evolution of the Christmas Celtic Sojourn.

Arts Fuse: How did A Christmas Celtic Sojourn come about?

Brian O’Donovan: It started as a lark back in 1987 as part of my regular radio program. I put together an hour-long program on GBH that was designed to be a seamless blend of music, songs, stories, poetry, and sentiments of the season, a kind of radio pastiche. I’m a big fan of that type of music, that solstice, Christmas carol type music. I find a lot of the poetry and sentimentality of the season intriguing and interesting because it’s one of the few times during the year that we allow ourselves to actually be sentimental without the obvious cynicism. I found it really satisfying and enjoyed putting it together.

But it was just a part of my radio show. It wasn’t delineated as a separate program until I put it together as a yearly, national program on Public Radio International, PRI. And it became very popular. At some point, I thought, ‘Hey, why don’t we put this on stage, do something live?’ For the very first one, I was considering doing something in a church, not to be religious but just as a backdrop. Then it crossed my mind that maybe we could go into a theater. And with the support of GBH, maybe we could do a show at the Somerville Theater. So we secured the Somerville Theater for December 13, 2003 and hired some musicians I had worked with in the past, people like Robbie O’Connell, a group called Cherish the Ladies, and a new group I had met at a festival in Chicago called Navan. My wife played. My daughter, who was young at the time, sang. We added some dancers. It was a Christmas Hooley, if you will, which in Ireland is a kind of spontaneous, impromptu, informal dance.

(L to R) Sheila Shingley, Elizabeth Simcock and Paul Gorman of the group Navan in this year’s A CHRISTMAS CELTIC SOJOURN. Photo by Niko Alexandrou, Eye on the Stage Photography

AF: What was the reaction to that first show?

O’Donovan: I was amazed. It sold out in about two or three days. I was surprised at that. If we had done 80% of the house I would have been thrilled. It was very popular out of the gate. We only did one show that first year. I remember that it was a snowy day, we did an afternoon rehearsal and we kicked it off that night with Navan singing.

The second year, we made it two shows and had to add a third because of demand. By the fourth year, the Cutler Majestic Theater became available, and I said, “Hey, if we can do three shows in Somerville, what would happen if we moved downtown?” It took me by surprise. We sold out five shows at the Cutler Majestic Theater that year. Then it took on a life of its own and it has grown organically to what it is today.

AF: Did the show track along your original vision or has it changed over the years?

O’Donovan: The vision is the same. The aesthetic is a good, old-fashioned variety show. You’ve got these great and talented musicians, they are well known in the arcane realm of Scottish or Irish music but are not really household names in any other part of mainstream music. It’s my responsibility and privilege to be able to present a platform that attracts a lot of eyeballs and ears. That hasn’t changed. What probably has changed [is], with the increase in the size of the audience, we have a little more scope than we anticipated having the early years. It’s sheer economics. We’ve got a bigger budget so it allows us to reach further afield, bring people from further afield, keep them for longer, be of assistance with things like visas and the inevitable challenges of international travel. That has allowed us to be a little more ambitious. And that in turn has made the selection of artists and the blend of those artists a little more sophisticated.

AF: Who owns the production?

O’Donovan: It is a partnership between WGBH and an outside presentation company. It is mostly a GBH product, a GBH brand. I am just the talent and presenter. I do this as part of my work at GBH, but I do better if the show does better. That’s the way all of us work.

AF: Are you surprised that it has become a holiday tradition so quickly?

O’Donovan: I am surprised that it happened so rapidly. I realized this a few years ago when we were listed in the Boston Globe for holiday events and it said, “along with the Christmas standards such as the Pops, the Nutcracker, the Rockettes and Christmas Celtic Sojourn . . .” I thought “Oh, that feels really good to be lumped with the standard fare.” But again, we’re relatively small. I’m not so sure we’ll grow more than this. This feels good to me; we may even have a little pullback, quite frankly. It’s not something where we say, “let’s grow this into a national brand.” It really is just satisfying the demand locally, but what we find, taking it regionally, like Providence and Worcester, is that we cover ground that otherwise isn’t covered by people who don’t want to travel out of those regions.

Alyth McCormack and Brian O’Donovan in this year’s A CHRISTMAS CELTIC SOJOURN. Photo by Niko Alexandrou, Eye on the Stage Photography

AF: It would very easy for the show to become very schmaltzy, but you have avoided that. How do you do that?

O’Donovan: This is a question we ask ourselves all the time. You can go dangerously close to that line but the way we avoid that is by avoiding doing something absolutely gratuitously. Going back to the aesthetic of the piece. It reflects a gathering at this time of year in Ireland or Scotland amongst a group of people who love to sing and dance and perhaps listen to a short piece of poetry or a story. It’s about being in the company of each other. There is a beautiful expression in the Irish language called “Omos ben auron,” and it’s something that has guided me all along. It means “respect for the song.” When we gathered for Christmas in my home, for example, we would sing very old, traditional Irish songs. But we’d also sing “I saw Momma Kissing Santa Claus.” We included that song in the show last year, and I told a story about Jimmy Boyd, who wrote the song, and how I learned about him as a child. I sang it with my wife and told that background story. And it was a fun moment rather than a schmaltzy moment. Of course, it is schmaltz.

There was a wonderful thing about America that few people know and that is that it did a wonderful job over the years, and especially when I was growing up, of exporting its schmaltz. So it’s not so much the song but the context of what we’re doing. You could ask if singing Christmas carols is really a Celtic moment, but it’s about delivering on the expectations of people who are gathered for Christmas. For example, we don’t shy away from the fact that we have someone singing a very obscure love song from Brittany. That’s not everybody’s taste either, but it blends seamlessly with “Deck the Halls.”

AF: How do you choose the artists?

O’Donovan: Essentially it comes down to me, but I’ve worked closely with Seamus Egan over the last six years. He’s an unbelievable artist, very tuned into what’s happening. And this type of music is my passion, and so I’m simply traveling around visiting various concerts and festivals. We do not book someone into a Christmas Celtic Sojourn that I haven’t seen live on stage and spent some time with. Personality and communication ability are very, very important additions to talent and uniqueness. They have to bring something very special to the content.

AF: The mix of the content is so critical. Was it this smoothly integrated at the beginning?

Cara Butler in this year’s A CHRISTMAS CELTIC SOJOURN. Photo by Niko Alexandrou, Eye on the Stage Photography

O’Donovan: A big part of that is having Paula Plum, who is our artistic director. When I started this whole process, I said “we need someone from the outside.” The vision for this had a theatrical element to it, and I wanted to work with somebody theatrically who was completely outside my world. I did not want somebody who knew everything about Celtic music. Paula is a very talented, well-known actress in Boston, an Eliot Norton Award winner.

AF: She sets up the drama for the show?

O’Donovan: Exactly. The drama writ large in this case is how you present it. What’s the timing? Where do you enter from? How does one piece blend into another seamlessly? We want it to look as if it is very natural. In order to do that, you have to be darn well rehearsed and make everybody comfortable.

AF: Have you been tempted to go after big name stars for this?

O’Donovan: It’s about sustainability. There’s an economic issue as well. But if our yearly presentation is only as good as the star power, we run the risk of pulling the whole plug. That is what I wanted to avoid. We wanted to build a brand for top-level talent and have people essentially trusting me to deliver that top level talent year after year. Also, a big part of the success of this thing is collaborative, musicians working with other musicians to help them sound better and to share their material and say, “Let me add a cello to that” or “we can do a banjo there.” The higher up the food chain in music you go, the more you get to the people who are not willing to put in the work to do that, or just don’t have the capacity of spirit to do it because they are in their own precious space. In fact, amidst all of the furor and stress of it, that actually is what juices me personally about the whole show. The idea that we can provide that space to bring musicians together to collaborate in this way. My philosophy is if you bring great musicians and talent together then essentially good things will happen.

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