‘A Christmas Celtic Sojourn’ offers mix of the old, the new, and the nyckelharpa

Singer-songwriter Siobhan Miller, three-time winner of the Scots Trad Music Awards “Best Singer” honors is among the prominent performers in this year's production of Brian O'Donovan's "A Christmas Celtic Sojourn".

By Sean Smith
Special to the BIR

Liz Carroll and Haley Richardson, outstanding Irish fiddlers from different generations, and Newfoundland folk/traditional singer Matthew Byrne are featured in this year’s “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn,” the holiday show that entertains and enchants thousands every year at venues in Boston, and elsewhere in New England, with music, dance and storytelling from Irish, Scottish and other Celtic – and occasionally non-Celtic – traditions.
After kicking off on Dec. 11 in Rockport, “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn” will come to Boston’s Cutler Majestic Theatre Dec. 13 through 15, then head out for shows in Worcester and Providence before closing its 2019 run back at the Cutler Dec. 19 through 22. [Ticket information and other details are at wgbh.org/celtic.]
Other prominent performers in this year’s production will include singer-songwriter Siobhan Miller, three-time winner of the Scots Trad Music Awards “Best Singer” honors, and Olav Johansson, a virtuoso on the Swedish nyckelharpa and a member of the famed trio Väsen. Cellist Natalie Haas returns, as do guitarist Owen Marshall and bassist Chico Huff, while percussionist Jordan Perlson joins the house band this year. Multi-instrumentalist Seamus Egan and harpist/pianist Maeve Gilchrist once again bring their leadership as, respectively, music director and assistant music director, as well as their musical skills.
Headlining the dance segments in “Sojourn” are Irish dance champions Jason Oremus and Ashley Smith-Wallace, a Boston native, along with youngsters in the Harney Academy of Irish Dance.
WGBH-FM broadcaster Brian O’Donovan, the show’s creator, once again will serve as host, narrator, and occasional performer, joined by his singer/pianist wife Lindsay.
This year’s “Sojourn” will have an innovative new wrinkle: its first “sensory-friendly” performance, from 3-4 p.m. on Dec. 20 in the Cutler. The concert will be dedicated to creating a more welcoming and accessible space for individuals with sensory input disorders, autism spectrum disorder, anxiety, and for anyone else who may benefit, O’Donovan says. Modifications throughout the theater space – such as lowering the overall sound level and keeping the house lights on but at a lower illumination – will create a friendly, non-judgmental, and supportive environment that encourage patrons to experience the event in their own way.
O’Donovan credits his wife for the inspiration. “Lindsay has long had an interest in adaptive performances, and when she came across an ad for a Boston Pops sensory-friendly concert, we went and were totally into it. So, we began talking about how we could do something similar for ‘Christmas Celtic Sojourn’ – it’s a complicated process, but we’re very excited about the possibilities.”
Here’s a look at this year’s line-up:
•Grammy-nominated, National Heritage Fellowship-winning Liz Carroll is easily one of the most respected and influential Irish-American fiddlers of her generation. From her duets with guitarist John Doyle to her collaboration with other female fiddlers in The String Sisters, among other work, Carroll has shown herself not only as a foremost interpreter of traditional music but a top-notch composer of tunes from tradition. Her most recent partnership with guitarist-pianist Jake Charron of Canadian trio The East Pointers, including their 2019 album, “Half Day Road,” has added further luster to her resumé.
•Haley Richardson, who turns 18 next year, has already established herself as a rising force in the generation of Irish musicians just starting to come of age. The New Jersey native, who began classical violin at age two and Irish fiddle just a few years later, has long displayed an uncommon command and presence in competition and performance alike. A student of Sligo fiddle master Brian Conway, Richardson has played with such luminaries as Liz Carroll, The Chieftains, Altan, Dervish, Cherish the Ladies, John Whelan, Paddy Keenan, and is a member of Green Fields of American and The John Whelan Band. She already has two albums to her credit: “Heart on a String,” which she recorded with her brother Dylan when she was 12, and this year’s “When the Wind Blows High and Clear,” with Canadian multi-instrumentalist Quinn Bachand.
Carroll and Richardson have both appeared in “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn,” although not at the same time.
“This is deliberate on our part – we’ve never really done anything like this before, where we have two representatives from different generations on the same instrument in the show together,” says O’Donovan. “Liz constantly says that Haley is better than she was when she was that age. There’s a real ‘passing on the tradition’ element here.”
•Matthew Byrne is renowned for his rich tenor voice and sensitive and empathetic treatment of songs from the song tradition of his homeland, and his own family. Through his critically acclaimed recordings and appearances at “A St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn,” the Burren Backroom and New Bedford Folk Festival, among others, he has built a solid following in New England.
•Siobhan Miller earned awards at age 13 in traditional singing competitions and from this background went on to cultivate a successful career in several different collaborations – including as co-founder of the band Salt House and in a duo with fiddler Jeana Leslie, with whom she recorded two well-received albums – and more recently as a soloist. From her traditional music background, Miller has increasingly focused on songwriting, and her 2018 album “Mercury” featured all-original material, some of which she co-wrote with established singer-songwriter Kris Drever. She also has had a cameo on the popular drama/fantasy TV show “Outlander.”
Miller will also perform in combination with Byrne, Maeve Gilchrist, and the O’Donovans.
“There’s sure to be a feast of harmony singing,” says O’Donovan. “Matthew, of course, has a great following here – in fact, I first heard about him through the Folk Song Society of Greater Boston – and with good reason: It takes you about three seconds of hearing him to know he’s simply outstanding. And I think Siobhan will build herself an audience here, too. She has a long track record in folk and traditional music, and now her own, very impressive work.”
•The inclusion of Olav Johansson in this year’s cast continues the “Sojourn” fascination with Scandinavian music – and reflects the increasing interest, held by many in the Celtic music community, in exploring its links with other traditions. As a teenager, Johansson and his friend Mikael Marin often visited with older musicians, who shared their knowledge and love of Swedish folk music. Johansson and Marin would later team up with 12-string guitarist Roger Tallroth to form Väsen, which for three decades has brought a new dimension to Scandinavian traditional music, incorporating elements of rock, jazz, and classical as well as the trio’s original compositions. Johansson has received numerous honors for his work as a musician, and particularly as a champion of the nyckelharpa tradition; in 2013, he was awarded the Zorn Medal in gold, one of the highest achievements for a Swedish traditional musician.
“In ‘Christmas Celtic Sojourn,’ we often like to showcase a specific instrument, like the uilleann pipes or perhaps the concertina,” says O’Donovan. “The nyckelharpa has what you might call ‘a gorgeous winter sound,’ and I’ve long dreamt of incorporating it into the show and our larger ensemble. In Olav, we have one of the absolute masters of the nyckelharpa.”
•Maureen Berry, who appeared in the 2017 show, will assume the role of dance director for this year’s “Sojourn.” She has produced feature-length stage shows such as “StepDance,” “Sláinte” and “Celtic Storm” and is director and choreographer for Maryland-based Teelin Irish Dance Company. This year, she will work with featured dancers Jason Oremus and Ashley Smith-Wallace.
A five-time solo national Irish dance champion, Australian-born Oremus was the principal lead dancer in “Riverdance” for more than eight years. He is the co-founder of award-winning dance company Hammerstep, and has performed across the world on stages including London’s Hammersmith Apollo, the Palais des Congrès de Paris and the Kremlin State Palace in Moscow. His choreography and creative work have been praised by Rolling Stone, Billboard, WIRED and the Huffington Post.
Smith-Wallace, who studied at the Smith-Houlihan Irish Dance Academy of Norwood, won the World Irish Step Dancing Champion in 2004 – the youngest American female ever to win the world title at that time – and went on to garner two more gold world medals in 2005 and 2009. Moving to New York City, Smith-Wallace expanded her portfolio to include ballet, tap, jazz, hip-hop and musical dance theater. She is currently the female lead dancer on the national tour of “Rockin’ Road to Dublin.”
For more details on this year’s “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn,” including the Dec. 20 sensory-friendly performance, go to wgbh.org/celtic.