‘New sounds’ emphasis helps keep Celtic Sojourn a ‘fresh’ attraction

Boston-area musicians Maeve Gilchrist and Mariel Vandersteel will be among the featured performers as “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn” begins its second decade of flavoring the Christmas holiday season with music, song, dance, and storytelling from Irish, Scottish and other Celtic – even non-Celtic – traditions.

The annual production, hosted as always by its creator and guiding spirit, Brian O’Donovan, will be on stage at the Cutler Majestic Theatre in Boston for a slate of performances from Dec. 15 to Dec. 22, and also at venues in Worcester (Dec. 17) and Derry, NH (Dec. 14); the Dec. 16 show at Rockport is already sold out.

Irish super-band Solas – including Seamus Egan, the show’s music director – will mark another return to “Sojourn,” supplemented by longtime collaborator Chico Huff on bass and a new percussionist, Steve Holloway. Also back in the line-up is fiddler Steve Hickman, whose brilliant demonstration of “hambone” – a style of body percussion rooted in folk tradition – has entertained audiences of all ages.

Joining Gilchrist, a Scottish-born harpist and vocalist, and Vandersteel – who in addition to Celtic and American fiddle styles is an expert in Norwegian hardanger fiddle – in making their debuts on “Sojourn” will be two singers: Maureen McMullan, a Scottish native fluent in jazz, folk, and contemporary genres and featured on the PBS special “Highland Heartbeat”; and Moira Smiley, an American singer whose work as a soloist and with the band VOCO embraces not only Irish and Appalachian music but Eastern European traditions.

One of the most popular features of “Sojourn,” the performances by children from the Harney Academy of Irish Dance in Walpole, will be enhanced this year by appearances from their teacher and mentor, Liam Harney, whose credits include two World Champion dance titles and a stint in “Riverdance.”

And to top it all off, the show has enlisted local musician Dietrich Strause to assemble and arrange a few pieces for a brass band.
“I think one aspect of ‘Christmas Celtic Sojourn’ is, we’re always looking for new sounds, a few new things to throw into the mix,” says O’Donovan, who along with his wife Lindsay will contribute to the “Sojourn” songfests. “Sure, there are some elements that stay pretty much from year to year, and some performers appear regularly. But we –Seamus Egan, our artistic director, Paula Plum, and others involved in the production – always try to keep the show fresh.”

That “new sounds” dynamic is embodied in the presence of Gilchrist and Vandersteel, says O’Donovan. “Maeve brings jazz and world-music influences to her playing and singing, which makes for a fascinating blend with the Irish and Scottish harp traditions. In addition to her solo work, Mariel has had experience in many kinds of collaborations – including bands like Annalivia and Blue Moose and the Unbuttoned Zippers, among others – but her skill on the hardanger fiddle is really extraordinary. There are a lot of links between Scandinavian music and the traditions of Celtic lands, and she will explore these in the show. She and Maeve embody the youth of this great musical scene.

“And when Maeve and Mariel play together,” he adds, “there’ll be lots of fireworks.”

The addition of McMullen and Smiley (who has appeared in the “Celtic Sojourn” St. Patrick’s Day show) is another cause for anticipation, O’Donovan says. “Maureen has performed on our ‘Celtic Sojourn’ live broadcasts, and we’re looking forward to having her in a whole different context. As for Moira, we’d been trying to get her for ‘Christmas Celtic Sojourn’ for several years, and now it’s finally worked out. Not only is she an accomplished and adventurous singer, she’ll be in an added role of vocal director, and coming up with harmonies and arrangements – it’s something we’ve never really had before.”

Hickman may be the oldest of the featured performers, says O’Donovan, but his spirit and sense of play is not far removed from that of the Harney Academy kids, with whom he frolicked during his last “Sojourn” appearance. “Steve is just a real character, and he has the perfect demeanor for a show that celebrates Christmas: He’s a ham, as well as a ‘hambonist.’”

In fact, the confluence of Hickman, Smiley, and Harney for this year’s show has produced an unexpected windfall. “Liam is, of course, an unbelievable dancer, and we’re so happy his schedule finally allowed him to take part. As it turned out, Liam and Steve have been together in the Footworks ensemble in the past, and Liam also mentioned to me that Moira – in addition to everything else – does body percussion. So I think these three will probably cobble together some sort of hambone-body percussion collaboration, which should be amazing to behold.

“And see, that’s what makes ‘Christmas Celtic Sojourn’ such a pleasure to organize: You do all this planning, you figure out who you want in the line-up, and what they’ll contribute – and then something you didn’t anticipate just falls into your lap.”

The past year has been a particularly memorable one for Boston and the region, which has experienced the full range of the emotional spectrum: the shock and horror of the Boston Marathon bombings, which segued into collective expressions of hope, solidarity, and strength; the mounting anticipation and joy that accompanied the surprising Red Sox championship season; and, what with last month’s mayoral election, contemplation of a new era of leadership in the city. While “Christmas Celtic Sojourn” has never made direct reference to events of the day, these certainly constitute a backdrop for the show, O’Donovan says, and that will undoubtedly be the case this year.

“Everything we produce in regard to ‘Christmas Celtic Sojourn’ has an emotional aspect,” he explains, “because Christmas is a time for reflection of the year that has passed, and to pore over memories good and bad. The bombings made us feel vulnerable, and we were saddened by the deaths and injuries. We also felt keenly other losses within our community, of people like Seamus Heaney, during 2013. And yes, it was definitely a treat to see the Red Sox win the World Series – it seemed to mean that much more this year.

“We don’t address these things overtly in the show, but clearly they are on all our minds as we celebrate the season with our family and friends, and turn to the traditions and rituals we observe at this time of year. So we hope people will look at ‘Christmas Celtic Sojourn’ as an opportunity for this reflection and celebration on a wider scale.”

For ticket information and other details about “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn,” see wgbh.org/celtic.