Sometimes, the craziest-sounding ideas turn out not to be so crazy after all. Case in point: last year's "A Christmas Celtic Sojourn."
Given the dire economic situation last fall, it would hardly have been surprising if the annual holiday offering of Irish music, song, dance, poetry, and story-telling had played it safe and scaled back a little.
Instead, "A Christmas Celtic Sojourn" not only held its normal allotment of shows at the Cutler Majestic Theater in Boston, but it also expanded to include stops in Worcester and Providence as well. And the results were so impressive that the 2010 edition will once again be a three-venue affair: Dec. 13 and 17-20 at the Cutler; Dec. 11 at the Hanover Theater (Worcester); and Dec. 12 at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium (Providence).
Host and guiding spirit Brian O'Donovan this year will welcome Scottish singer-songwriter Karine Polwart, renowned fiddle-guitar duo Liz Carroll and John Doyle, singer and Uilleann piper Christy O'Leary, percussionist Eamon Murray and accordionist Seán Óg Graham of the band Beoga, multi-instrumentalist Seamus Egan (who is the show's musical director) of Solas, and bassist Chico Huff. Pianist Lindsay O'Donovan also will be on hand. On the dance end, show choreographer Kieran Jordan will be joined by Nic Gareiss as well as the Harney Academy of Irish Dance.
"We were very gratified by the response last year, to say the least," says O'Donovan, whose weekly "A Celtic Sojourn" WGBH radio program provided the inspiration and basis for the show.
"The year before, we had tried doing a performance in New York City, but it didn't really work out as we had hoped, so we thought about developing more of a New England focus — bring it to Worcester and Providence, so people didn't have to come to Boston. Then the economic crisis hit, and well, one could've easily expected ticket sales to go down. Instead, the exact opposite happened, and we wound up selling something like 2,500 tickets in Providence and 1,800 in Worcester.
"This experienced really affirmed our feeling for what 'A Christmas Celtic Sojourn' is supposed to be: a few hours of down time, relaxation and fellowship in what's so often a busy, even stressful period — a genuine celebration of family and friends. People clearly seem to feel that's an important thing to have in their lives."
O'Donovan is, quite naturally, enthusiastic about the new additions to the "Christmas Celtic Sojourn" cast, like Polwart, a former member of the Battlefield Band and Malinky who has established herself as one of Scotland's premier singers and song composers. "Karine has long been a phenomenal interpreter of traditional songs, but she is drawing much well-deserved attention for her own material, like 'Waterlily' and 'Harder to Walk These Days Than Run,' among many others. There's a very honest interest in, and concern for, the human condition throughout her music, and that's a lot of what 'Christmas Celtic Sojourn' is about."
The Carroll-Doyle partnership has been one of the most exciting to emerge in the "new traditionalist" Irish scene, O'Donovan says, to the point where one almost overlooks their individual talents. "Liz has long been one of the best fiddlers in the business, and very influential for her playing as well as tune-composing. John is in demand not only as an accompanist — he's played with just about everyone, from Joan Baez to the late Jerry Holland - but more recently as a producer; and he's also a fine singer as well as a much-admired guitarist."
O'Leary will be familiar to many as a former member of the Boys of the Lough and through his singing stints with De Danann, says O'Donovan, but he has cultivated a most successful career as a solo musician and singer, appearing on "A Prairie Home Companion" and at numerous festivals throughout the world. "I've always loved Christy's singing and playing, and thought it would be great to have a piper in the mix. He will add a lot to the traditional element in the show."
Similarly, Graham's top-notch accordion-playing, along with the solid bodhran and percussion supplied by his bandmate Murray (making his second appearance in as many years on the show), will further strengthen the instrumental quality of the "Christmas Celtic Sojourn" ensemble. "Beoga is one of the best groups to come out of Ireland in recent years, and we're delighted to have two representatives on hand this year," says O'Donovan.
"I can't say enough about the job that Seamus Egan has done, both as musician and as musical director," he adds. "One thing that happens each year is we have a 'house band' for the show, and Seamus really takes a leadership role in getting it together. He's been a huge help to the development of 'Christmas Celtic Sojourn.'
"And we can't overlook the contribution of Chico Huff, who has played with so many great performers — including Solas — and in so many genres of music, from folk to rock to jazz. I always look forward to seeing how the chemistry between the performers develops, whether they've played together before or not; it's one of the most enjoyable aspects of the show."
The dance component of "Christmas Celtic Sojourn" has likewise become integral to the show's character, O'Donovan says, especially under the direction of Jordan. "Kieran is a real innovator, but she also has such a profound respect for the Irish dance tradition; it's such a treat to see the ideas she comes up with."
Another treat, he says, will be watching Gareiss, who has performed with the likes of the Chieftains, the David Munnelly Band, Beoga, Teada and Le Vent du Nord and appeared at the ICONS Festival and Boston Celtic Music Fest. "Nic has such a joie-de-vivre about him, and it's something he truly expresses in his dancing."
For all their tender years, the members of the Harney Academy of Irish Dance have become an integral part of the show, O'Donovan says. "We look forward to having the kids back with us. They bring a lot of excitement to the show, of course, but I think they also perhaps help us adults recall our own childhoods and what the holiday season was like for us growing up."
There will be a special addition to this year's show, he adds: a performance of Thomas Moore's "The Song of Fionnuala" by the PALS Children's Chorus of Brookline, with an accompanying dance choreographed and led by Jordan. The song evokes the famous Irish legend of the Children of Lir, a story "I've been wanting to do something with for some time," says O'Donovan.
"This is a time of year, after all, when we call to mind ancient myths and tales that have been shared down through the ages, from generation to generation. They are part of what sustains us, and that's something 'Christmas Celtic Sojourn' celebrates."
Ticket information and other details about the "Christmas Celtic Sojourn" performances in Boston, Providence and Worcester can be found at the website/wgbh.org/listen/celtic.cfm.
There will be a special performance of "A Christmas Celtic Sojourn" to benefit Project Bread, on Dec. 15 from 6 p.m to 7 p.m. at the First Church Congregational UCC, 11 Garden St., Cambridge. Information available at projectbread.org.