REVIEW: WGBH’s annual ‘A St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn’ offered humor, inspiration, and vibrant performances

Lighthearted tales of green porridge, an inspirational insect, a hilarious song about classical Greek to more serious fare such as historical anti-war songs, punctuated with the stirring song, Siúil a Rún, sung a capella, highlighted this year’s WGBH’s A St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn.  This captivating show concluded its run at Harvard University’s famous Sanders Theatre on Saturday, March 18.  The majestic stage has been affectionately likened to a “roll up desk.”  The beautiful, dark wooden stage was softly-lit with two stately, marble Greek statues sitting on each end as a grand, dimly-lit bronze chandelier floats overhead.

A St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn always strikes a delicate balance between the rollicking and a sweet lullaby.  Wearing coordinated black dresses, Scottish musicians Jenna and Mairi Chaimbeul struck the first chords for an afternoon of celebration, comedy, rebellion, and joy wrapped up in the roots and branches of Irish music.  A high energy number greeted the enthusiastic crowd as the rest of this dynamic ensemble took the stage including returning Music Director and multi-instrumentalist Keith Murphy, The Karan Casey Band, fiddle champion Liz Carroll, and the Miller Family with the Goulding School of Irish Music.  Joined by host WGBH’s Brian O’Donovan, A St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn was brought to a thrilling start as it traditionally does each year.

Dressed in a black and red dress, Karan Casey’s vocals soar with a tone a bit reminiscent of Linda Ronstadt.  She embraced Buile Mo Chroí’s passionate lyrics such as “the palm of my hand” and “the beat of my heart” accompanied by a concertina, blues guitar, and piano.   She also gave an enthralling performance later as Brian O’Donovan shared how the Irish spontaneously sings in public places.  Karan Casey then offered an impromptu a cappella version of Siúil a Rún as the audience fell into hushed tones before bursting into applause.

All Ireland fiddle champion Liz Carroll, dressed in a red shirt and black pants, offered some welcome comedic storytelling before each of her performances.  Hailing from Chicago, she humorously named a song she’s written on her slide-style fiddle after her brother’s leading film role in The Relic.  She also talked about composing songs for seven rooms in a Chicago art museum containing ceramics, musical instruments, and metal.  Her dry sense of humor combined with her uplifting, toe-tapping songs were wonderful to witness.

Liz was joined by Keith Murphy, who spoke of green porridge on St. Patrick’s Day, for two songs, one amusingly called Barbara Streisand Trip that had the mounting energy and pulsing rhythms of a moving train.  From Newfoundland, Keith Murphy’s performances are always stellar, with a song named after a Tennyson poem about seafaring and the great beyond. He was accompanied by harpist Jenna Moynihan.  His rich, resonant, smooth sound, which possesses a hint of James Taylor and John Denver, is always remarkable.

As for the inspirational insect, Scottish fiddler Jenna Moynihan and harp player and composer Mairi Chaimbeul, competing in a harp festival in April, judged that a particular song was good by an insect that made its presence known after the song, Dancing in Absence was completed.  With the chime of the harp distinct over the fiddler’s subtle rhythm, the energetic tune built into a quick step.

Sam Miller, athletic and blindingly swift, kept the energy high as he performed solo with high leaps, kicks, and complicated stepping.  The Miller dancers and the Goulding School of Irish Music, in coordinated black traditional garb, offered their own moments of comedy, one involving a hat.  They also skillfully navigated though a slip jig and hornpipe reel, showing just why they ranked 5th place at the Glasgow competition traditional set dance.

 

A St. Patrick's Day Celtic Sojourn

Past photo of ‘A St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn’ Courtesy of A St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn/WGBH

Keeping up with tradition, Brian O’Donovan, with his wife and the ensemble took the stage to pay tribute to The Clancy Brothers with the catchy tune, The Leaving of Liverpool.

The second half tackled anti-war songs, immigration, and its fair share of comedy mixed in.  Not only did Brian O’Donovan proudly share a comedic song on classical Greek and education at Harvard University accompanied by fiddler Kevin Burke, but on a solemn note, also paid a compelling tribute to the late Leonard Cohen with a song about rebellion called The Partisan.  Brian and Keith Murphy created beautiful harmony, enhanced exquisitely by Mairi Chaibeul’s harp.

The afternoon also boasted collaborative jam sessions that brought the audiences to a stomping rhythm and ending with Karan Casey leading a sing-along on immigration with the entire ensemble, showing how music always makes a difference in the world.

A Celtic Sojourn presents their summer Roots and Branches concert in July, A Christmas Celtic Sojourn, and other events during the year.  For a taste of Irish and Celtic traditions each Saturday afternoon, click here to tune in to A Celtic Sojourn hosted by Brian O’Donovan on 89.7 FM WGBH from 3 – 6 p.m.  Follow A St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn on Facebook for updates and much more.

From Renaissance to pop music, Barnaby Smith talks VOCES8’s exciting Celebrity Series of Boston debut

Sometimes a great sound is born out of friendship.  In the days following Valentine’s Day, Celebrity Series of Boston is proud to present British octet group, VOCES8, a renowned a cappella group that has toured all over the world and tackles a variety of genres from Renaissance to contemporary pop music.  They will make their Boston debut on Wednesday, February 15 and 16 at Longy’s Pickman Hall in Cambridge, MA at 8 p.m.

VOCES8’s Artistic Director Barnaby Smith talks about how the group was formed, its music roots, and what is in store for their exciting Boston debut.  Click here for more information on VOCES8 and for tickets.

Jeanne Denizard:  This is British octet group, VOCES8’s Celebrity Series of Boston debut.  Which songs are you most excited about sharing with Boston?  How do you select the songs you perform?

Barnaby Smith:  We are excited to come to Boston for the first time as a group because we know what an incredible city it is for the arts.  I am excited to sing our Renaissance Polyphony because Boston has such a wonderful tradition for early music, and I always find it thrilling to sing this specialist style of music to a knowledgeable audience.

We choose our songs in a number of different ways. Often festivals ask for specific repertoire or programme their festival on a specific theme, which guides us in uncertain directions. This is mainly true for the classical repertoire. As Artistic Director, I then listen to a lot of music and select songs I think the group will sing well or fit a theme I am working on for programming. Group members can make suggestions for all genres of music, but our pop and jazz rep is chosen a lot more by the members and arrangers of the group who might have ideas for great songs they think would work well for our voices and specific lineup. It’s always a collaborative process, and one of the exciting parts of my job as artistic director is to glue all the moving parts together into one great vehicle.

JD:  VOCES8 tackles a number of music genres such as pop and Renaissance polyphony.

BS:  Singing lots of different music in different styles is what keeps our job so wonderfully engaging.  We get to enjoy many different styles of music, but we also have the challenge of trying to master them too.  Singing a Bach motet requires a very different skill set than scatting a jazz tune. We have eight wonderful personalities and it is exciting that everyone brings an area of expertise, so we can all always be learning from each other too.

JD:  What inspired you to put this group together in 2003 and how did the group members meet?

BS:  All the original members were in the RSCM’s Millennium Youth ChoirRSCM’s Millennium Youth Choir in the UK.  When we all got a little old to be in the choir anymore, my brother Paul and I decided that we’d still like to see all our friends from choir during the school holidays, so we set up singing sleepovers. We’d all get together on Friday, rehearse on Saturday and sing a concert on Sunday. Everyone had to sleep on the floor of our parents’ house and we’d have a good party somewhere along the way too.  It all began out of friendship and our enjoyment of singing together.

We then got invited to a choral competition in Italy in 2005. The competition offered to pay our flights and accommodation to go to Italy for a week. We thought it would be a great holiday, so off we went without doing too much rehearsal or expecting much. When we arrived, it turned out to be a very serious competition. We rallied, did three days of intensive rehearsal, and somehow won the competition. The rest is history.

JD:  Is there a standout or unconventional song that was particularly challenging that you surprisingly share in your repertoire? 

BS:  In our programme in Boston, I am going to select The Luckiest.  The Luckiest is a song originally by Ben Folds who sings it solo at the piano. We have had to turn that into an eight part piece of choral music. It requires the singers to perform with perfect blend and also for us to find a very varied collection of colours to paint the wonderful text. The interesting thing about it and the reason I am proud of the group is that I hope it sounds easy when we sing it  I hope we’re a little like the Swan who is kicking furiously under the water but looks so elegant above it as he glides along. I think this is the ultimate test for a group’s technique and I am thrilled with how accomplished we have become at performing that particular song.

JD:  How did you decide on your sound?  Having toured all over Europe at some of the most prestigious venues in the world, was there one that you couldn’t believe you were onstage at?

We grew up listening to some of the great a cappella groups such as the King’s Singers, The Swingles, The Manhattan Transfer, and The Real Group which has always inspired us. We wanted to achieve the same technical perfection as these groups, but create our own sound so we chose a unique line-up with two females and six male singers. We have two countertenors who sing alto, a very British choral style. When we put the eight voices together, it creates quite a unique concoction. We work very hard without technique to be able to blend this sound.

We have been very fortunate to sing in many incredible venues across the world. Often I have to pinch myself!  Perhaps most recently would be our Christmas concert in Tokyo Opera City. It is a concert hall with a wooden ceiling as tall as a cathedral. It’s an incredible space.  Sometimes I think we take for granted the wonderful spaces we get to sing in. One of my New Year’s resolutions this year is to take a photo documentary of every hall so that I can remember them in years to come.

See VOCES8 on Wednesday, February 15 and Thursday, February 16 at 8 p.m.  Click here for the full list of performances and for tickets. Subscriptions and gift cards are also available.  Celebrity Series of Boston thrives on support from the community. Click here for a variety of ways to support Celebrity Series of Boston.