Celtic Woman: A Christmas Celebration is a Joyous Holiday Concert
by Kristin Battestella
The Celtic Woman: A Christmas Celebration Live from Dublin concert DVD serves as a companion to the 2006 platinum CD of the same name featuring the Irish ensemble's original lineup of Chloë Agnew, Méav Ní Mhaolchatha, Órla Fallon, Lisa Kelly, and Máiréad Nesbitt alongside producer and musical director David Downes. This sophomore session remains a well balanced mix of carols, traditional hits, and classic holiday sounds complete with an Old World festive flair.
The colorfully begowned ladies open A Christmas Celebration with Carol Of The Bells, and the backing choir wonderfully contributes to this harmonizing staple. Although the tune is a little short and not a show stopping opener as seen in other Celtic Woman specials, these familiar melodies introduce the audience to the heraldry in store. Méav's first verse of Silent Night is sung in Irish, leaving the lovely universal recognition to shine with Máiréad's tender fiddle. The beauty of the season happens here – no spectacle needed beyond a voice, a string, and the tearful, humble story. White Christmas is also a slower piano based nostalgia with Chloë, Lisa, and Méav rotating the refrains before a big, all together finale. Órla's mellow a cappella opening of Away In A Manger likewise needs little else, and the pleasant chimes softly rise for a solid but no less lullaby tender. Although the songs are slowed to let the long winded notes linger, A Christmas Celebration moves fast thanks to short, three or four minute renditions.
The lighthearted vocals and choir echoes of Ding Dong Merrily On High give everyone a chance to swish their skirts and get into the the somewhat amusing Celtic Woman choreography – if you can call the turning left or right and walking forward or back choreography. The slightly silly moves are unnecessary, for standing still and singing is the point and what the ladies do best. There's also a slight costuming change as the shimmery wraps are lost in favor of some uncomfortable looking strapless gowns. Celtic Woman always seems to wear such unflattering, ill-fitting dresses! Fortunately, there's a happy sway to A Christmas Celebration, and Máiréad gets into her little skipping fiddlery as the octaves rise. The men and women of the choir also have a chance to shine with the unique liturgy chants opening Little Drummer Boy, and the percussion instruments keep the rhythm simple behind Órla and Chloë as the orchestra swells. Lisa (anglicized from Laoise, in case you were wondering where her fancy was) sings an intimate The Christmas Song with Downes at the piano, starting off with a soft, melancholy reminisce before turning to the concert crowd with the familiar lyrics and big notes. I wish In The Bleak Midwinter was sung because the words are so touching and its melody may be less familiar to modern listeners. However, Máiréad's instrumental is just as rousing, with a weeping warmth and heartstrings that segue into The First Noel. The carol is again slowed to make room for Chloë, Lisa, Órla, and Méav's high harmonizing, and the rising choir and orchestra crescendos bring the reverence home.
Simply put, Méav's The Wexford Carol is the way this somewhat difficult carol should be sung. With little else required, listeners are able to understand the humble creche story and choir echoes alongside the retained medieval high notes. I simply love the pleasant, catchy verse of Christmas Pipes and include it in almost all of my Christmas music playlists. Accenting bells, whistles, and harmonies match each whimsical refrain, getting everyone involved in this seven minute standout on A Christmas Celebration. This is a fun, jovial, and memorable new composition fitting in wonderfully amid the holiday classics. While this O Holy Night is not as operatic as other powerhouse versions and it's disappointing none of the ladies go for the major big note – which I think they all can hit – the lofty harmonies and choral atmosphere exude the heavenly heavy nonetheless. This all somber edition doesn't have a bombastic overboard but sounds like church, and that's not a complaint. Likewise, Chloë continues the humility in Panis Angelicus. The accompanying small string section invokes a baroque performance mood and the centuries old notion of how when people wanted to hear a carol, they had to sing the prayers themselves – no immediate phone recognition and instant download available.
Lisa breaks the December focus per se with the perhaps more expectedly Celtic Green The Whole Year Round. Although not as immediately recognizable as a Christmas song and some may not like the out of place, almost shoehorned advertising of what Celtic Woman is about the rest of the year, the holly and the ivy-esque, life amid the chilly tone remains festive. It's also unusual to have all four singers on Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, but the arrangement showcases the melancholy vocal echoes and lonely fiddle spotlights. Máiréad's fiddle also introduces the lesser known Irish carol Don Oíche Úd I Mbeithil (That Night In Bethlehem) with an ancient somber to match Órla's harp. Méav and Chloë bring the ye olde lyrics, and even if most of us don't know what they are saying, the melody carries its titular peace. Though again too short, only Celtic Woman can do these kinds of unique carols, and I wish A Christmas Celebration had more obscurities like this. Fortunately, Chloë, Méav, Lisa, and Órla hold hands for the penultimate invitational O Come All Ye Faithful as Máiréad rouses the choir with escalating refrains. You want to sing along with each verse but the familiar welcoming chokes one up and gets that holiday spirit a flutter.
The Let It Snow coda provides A Christmas Celebration with some jazzy fun for the ladies – complete with some new dance moves as Celtic Woman puts on the ritzy. This didn't have to be last, however, as if the softer December tunes were somehow more respectful and there couldn't be any louder, fast paced, or happy songs amid the heavy traditionals. The brass notes let the good time shine, and even the usually silent, fiddle only Máiréad has a final holiday say. Unfortunately, the A Christmas Celebration CD has a different track order and excises songs or regional bonuses, trading In The Bleak Midwinter and The First Noel with That Night in Bethlehem, O Come all Ye Faithful, and Let it Snow. It's surprising that this concert is relatively short at just over an hour, as there are plenty more carols to sing. The DVD of A Christmas Celebration is also a little plain with a cumbersome interface. However, there are closed captioning options – which are nice to have for the difficult to understand carols. Celtic Woman has no need for some kind of spectacle or big light show, but the Dublin venue seems small and dark. The choir and orchestra are also dressed in black to be shadowed behind the star group, but perhaps some festive red, white, or green attire may have made the evening even brighter.
It's a little sad that Celtic Woman has become a revolving door group and now none of the original members remain. Wikipedia even has a chart counting how there are now more former ladies than there are current ones. I tend to view the group in two halves, with the original superior years at best through 2012 and the more recent tours of mere pleasantry. Thankfully, A Christmas Celebration remains one of the group's finest – a delightful concert video and CD filled with joy and holiday charm for all.