Aoife O'Donovan's haunting voice introduced the fifth annual Christmas Celtic Sojourn at the Cutler Majestic Theatre Thursday just as it had done all week in this nine-date run, which ends tonight. But the Newton-born singer, who has had considerable success this year with her alternative bluegrass band Crooked Still, didn't launch the holiday show with words.
Instead, she issued soft, sustained notes, breathily and beautifully sung over the lightest backing from the nine musicians seated behind her. Over the next 2 1/2 hours of music, dance, poetry, and storytelling, along with other cast members, Aoife sang Christmas hymns and Celtic folk songs and harmonized with her 14-year-old sister, Fionnuala. With each number, her tender, sweet voice brought a meditative stillness to this entertaining, seasonal Celtic revue.
The stage was set up like a living room, with wooden chairs and a comfy armchair with a side table, and three Christmas trees. As Brian O'Donovan, the show's creator and host and Aoife's father, said midway through, "This celebration got too big for my kitchen."
Gray-haired and tweed-suited, O'Donovan cut a genial, patriarchal figure, MCing the show, joining in on songs, and sitting in that armchair while reading poetry and stories by Celtic writers. He added his own memoir, "A West Cork Christmas," which recalled his childhood in Ireland with descriptive narrative and a few tall tales.
Along with the angelic-voiced O'Donovan sisters, the musical cast included the Celtic band Solas; Scottish singer-songwriter Dougie MacLean; another O'Donovan family member, wife Lindsay on piano; bodhran player Paddy League; Scottish fiddler Alasdair Fraser; and innovative cellist Natalie Haas, who plucked and bowed her instrument like the giant fiddle it is. As Fraser said of his protegee Haas, "Natalie's releasing the cello from the orchestral shackles that's held it for centuries."
The show was a nice play in contrasts, none more pronounced than MacLean's dry, sentimental folk songs (including his best-known one, "Caledonia") and the wild jigs and reels that brought on the graceful step dancers: Darrah Carr, Niall O'Leary, Ben Power, and dance director Kieran Jordan.
Led by MacLean, the entire cast stood front of stage to sing "Auld Lang Syne" together. More perfectly, "Silent Night" was begun in Gaelic and finished in English, allowing the audience to join in.
Though the show was a joint effort by a considerable cast, another female soloist shone. Solas's founding member, fiddle player Winifred Horan, performed with riveting prowess and infectious, full-bodied passion. Unity is one thing, individuality quite another.