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G Force

He still enjoys the ‘Sojourn’

By James Reed
Globe Staff / December 18, 2010

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WHO: Brian O’Donovan

WHAT: The affable host of “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn With Brian O’Donovan’’ reflects on eight years of entertaining New England audiences with traditional Irish songs, storytelling, and dance. The show is an offshoot of O’Donovan’s long-running “A Celtic Sojourn’’ radio program on WGBH. Among this year’s highlights are singers Robbie O’Connell (Clancy Brothers) and Heidi Talbot (formerly of Cherish the Ladies), cellist Natalie Haas, and fiddler Hanneke Cassel.

WHEN: “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn’’ finishes its run at Cutler Majestic Theatre with performances today at 3 and 8 p.m. and tomorrow at 1 and 5 p.m. Tickets are $25-$75 at www.wghb.org/celtic.

Q. You’re going into your eighth year of performances, but do you remember your original intentions for “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn’’?

A. This hasn’t been a plan. It’s been an organic growth for us. We started this as a lark back in 2003 at the Somerville Theatre. I thought every year that if we did a small show in an 800-seat theater, we’d be doing very well. But it’s grown so much. We’ve realized in taking it around various cities in New England that people really appreciate not having to come into the city, and yet we have a presence in the city, too.

Q. Why do you think the show has become such a staple of the holiday season?

A. I used to joke sometime after getting it started that our advertising slogan should be “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn: The Unspectacular Christmas Show.’’ What I meant by that is that the show is like a warm cup of cocoa. The environment that it’s in is very important to us, and it really becomes a family affair where we try to invite people to be part of what’s happening onstage rather than just being entertained in a one-way system. The thing that thrills me about it is that I’m the curator of the content. People now say, “We may not have heard of these musicians, but we trust O’Donovan.’’ And that allows me to get these incredible musicians whom the vast majority of people have not heard of.

Q. Theatrics aside, how is the show different from your radio program? A. Dancing is a big piece of the show, and there’s also the fact that it’s live music. I regularly say at the end of my radio program that radio, CDs, and MP3s are a poor substitute for anything live. To me, music is a live communication. So this show allows me to present these musicians and singers in all of their full glory.

Q. Could someone appreciate this show without liking Celtic music or traditions?

A. A hundred percent. A lot of people know of my program, but this is not necessarily a folkie audience. It’s not the audience that you’d see at an Atlan or Chieftains show. It’s more of a general audience that’s out for a Christmas event.

Q. What’s the biggest misconception about “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn’’?

A. There are two, actually. One is that the show is the same each year, which it isn’t. It’s completely redone. There are central parts of it that are now ritual. There’s one poem we read every year, for example, but the general bulk of the content changes. The other [misconception] is that the music is what my kids call the diddle-dee-dee music — reels and jigs and horn pipes. The music is much more varied and sophisticated than that.

Q. Northampton was a new town for you this year, but are there any plans to take the show beyond New England?

A. We’d consider it, but it’s not like we say, “Oh, my God, now we’ve got to take it to the next level,’’ and suddenly we’re doing an arena tour. Our ambition is to continue deepening the tradition around New England. Would we go somewhere else if we were invited? I think we probably would, but growth doesn’t dictate how this show will develop over the next few years.

Q. Role play with me just for a minute. What would happen if I were in Los Angeles and I went to see “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn’’ there?

A. Well, that would be a good thing for us [laughs].

Q. But does the show translate in that kind of context?

A. I think the show does translate to somewhere like Los Angeles or New York. What’s a little more difficult — and we knew this would be the case in Northampton — is that my brand isn’t fully established in Northampton just because of [WGBH’s] signal. We don’t get to Northampton.

Q. You mentioned that your audience is really all over the map, but when did you notice that was happening?

A. I noticed it from the start. It goes back to WGBH, which has a very diverse audience. I sometimes joke — but only half joke — that “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn’’ in Boston is the most popular Jewish Christmas show in town [laughs]. Basically, the show delivers a GBH audience, which is an interested and educated audience. And long may it be so. It’s really wonderful.

JAMES REED

Interview was edited and condensed. James Reed can be reached at jreed@globe.com.