The Irish vocal group Celtic Woman is more concept than band, as a glance at the member timeline on its Wikipedia page would indicate. Founded in 2004 for what was supposed to be a single concert event, the group has continued for nearly two decades as a perennial favorite for PBS fundraising events and, as Sunday night indicated, holiday concerts. Currently featuring four members—vocalists Tara McNeill, Muirgen O’Mahoney and Hannah Traynor with violinist Megan Walsh—the women were joined by the Chicago Philharmonic for a two-hour program featuring holiday classics, crowd pleasers and, for good measure, “Danny Boy.” Though the production itself left much to be desired, there’s no denying the charm this ensemble brings to the stage, as despite a smattering of empty seats around the Auditorium Theatre, the crowd in attendance was festive and enthusiastic.
Promotional material for the concert enticed potential ticket buyers with quite a set up:
Program highlights include a new arrangement of the classic Silent Night and the ancient Gaelic carol Dia do Bheatha from the Celtic Woman Holiday Album, The Magic of Christmas.
The evening also includes popular Christmas songs like Sleigh Ride and a singalong version of Deck the Halls. Traditional Irish instruments like the Irish harp, bagpipes and bodhrán drum are joined by a full live orchestra for this special seasonal performance
Except The Magic of Christmas is the group’s 2019 holiday album, and they didn’t perform “Silent Night” or “Dia do Bheatha” at all. And while they did perform “Sleigh Ride” and “Deck the Halls,” the latter was most definitely not a singalong. In fact, on stage, the ladies promoted their newest holiday album (and the group’s 17th overall by my count), Postcards from Ireland, from which they performed the sweetly nostalgic original “Toy’s Waltz.” I didn’t see a harp or a bodhrán drum, but then I didn’t have a full view of the orchestra behind the performers; maybe they were hiding. In the end, I’m not sure what show we were supposed to see, but it wasn’t the one from the theater’s press materials.
Nevertheless, the show featured 21 tracks with a brief intermission between the two acts, from the moving “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” to an instrumental “What Child is This” violin solo and a swelling rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” to ring in the upcoming new year. For those unfamiliar, the appeal of Celtic Woman is the group’s polished look, angelic voices and culturally Irish songbook. Whoever is currently on stage as part of the band, they’re likely decked out in some jewel-toned ball gown, singing with voices seemingly devoid of vibrato or even breath between phrases, and indulging in three- or four-part harmonies on orchestral arrangements of easy-listening standards. Tonight’s performance captured all of that to some degree, most notably the women’s gorgeous, if sometimes timid, voices; O’Mahoney is clearly the most confident of the three singing, though McNeill and Traynor capably held their own.
What was missing from tonight’s concert, then, was the glamour and sparkle of the group’s early iterations, the interesting staging and sense of momentum from the show’s beginning to end. Everything on stage worked just fine, but none of it was impressive or memorable, from the straightforward staging placing the women in a simple line in front of conductor Lloyd Butler and the orchestra arranged in a half-circle around him to the group’s lovely but simple gowns, two red and two burgundy, nary a costume change in sight (much to this reviewer’s sartorial disappointment). While the music was lovely enough and enjoyable in a theater as gorgeous as the Auditorium, nothing about the production on stage meant one had to be there in person to experience it. Staying home and queuing up the group’s copious playlists on Spotify might’ve done just as well.
Then again, the band appears to still have its devotees, as many in the audience were clearly eager to enjoy themselves, donning Santa hats and reindeer antlers, plenty of sequins and shine in their attire. And tonight at least, a couple of concert-goers’ dreams appeared to come true from the second row, as they stood for a standing ovation of two after literally every single number. And in a time when it’s harder and harder to enjoy something unironically, when Twitter trolls will jump on any harmless opinion and Spotify Wrapped is waiting at the end of the year to judge us on our listening choices, who am I to yuck someone’s yum, however meh it may be? Merry Christmas to all, and humbug to all the rest.
Celtic Woman: A Christmas Symphony continues its North American tour through December. For more information, visit celticwoman.com
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