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'A Celtic Christmas' returns to the Craterian Theater

"A Celtic Christmas," Tomaseen Foley's re-creation of a night before Christmas in a remote farmhouse in western Ireland, is more than just a romp through the native Irish storyteller's early memories.

It's also a showcase of fiery Irish music, song and dance performed by classically trained, professional musicians, singers and dancers with a passion for ancient folk traditions of Celtic people of Western Europe.

The 21st annual "A Celtic Christmas" is set for Saturday, Dec. 23, at the Craterian Theater, 23 S. Central Ave., Medford. Shows are at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $32, $35 or $38, $22, $25 or $28 for age 22 and younger, and can be purchased at craterian.org, at the box office, 16 S. Bartlett St., or by calling 541-779-3000.

"We did the show for a couple of years before staging it at the Craterian," Foley says, looking back at the beginning. "It started with all local performers. There was a guy called James Keigher from the west of Ireland who played guitar and sang; Molly McKissick played harp; there was a dancer named Moira Murphey; and actress and director Alison Grant and I performed excerpts from Dylan Thomas' 'A Child's Christmas in Wales' as part of the show. Scottish musician Brian Freeman designed the sound.

"We started at the Ashland Community Center the first year," he says. "Then we took the show to high schools in Grants Pass, Klamath Falls and Redding. It seemed to work well."

Foley also performed as a solo act at various venues, and it was at a Celtic festival in Klamath Falls that he met guitarist and recording artist William Coulter. 

"He was performing there with a fiddler, and they were by far the best at the festival," Foley says. "So I made it my business to see them afterwards, and we decided to work together."

Coulter has been on board as music director for Foley's show since it was first staged at the Craterian Theater. Also to his credit, he's worked on a dozen or so recordings with San Francisco Bay Area ensemble Orison, cellist Barry Phillips, guitarist Benjamin Verdery and others. His interpretation of Henry Mancini's "Baby Elephant Walk" on a 2004 compilation album, "Pink Guitar," earned Coulter a Grammy Award. He works as a recording engineer and producer, and teaches guitar at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

Orison's collective repertoire includes music from folk and classical traditions. Coulter also appears on "Toward the Sun," a CD recorded in 2014 with flute and tin whistle player Brian Finnegan from Armagh, Northern Ireland, and collaborates with Canadian violinist Edwin Huizinga as Fire & Grace. The duo blends the finesse of classical violin with the fiery sounds of Celtic guitar. Its debut album was released last year.

"We didn't meet Edwin until about four years ago," Foley says. "He's relatively new to the show. William, piper and flutist Brian Bigley and I perform with Apollo's Fire of the Cleveland Baroque Orchestra. That's where we met Edwin. He's classically trained at Oberlin Conservatory of Music, but he plays all kinds of styles. We were doubtful when he heard of him. We wanted to work with one of the great Irish fiddlers we know, but Apollo's Fire leader Jeannette Sorrell insisted we give him a try. 'You'll see,' she said. When we heard him play, we thought 'Oh, yeah. He can do it.' "

Along with Coulter, Huizinga and Bigley, who also is an Irish dancer, Foley will be joined on the Craterian stage by dancer Marcus Donnelly, accordion player and dancer Samantha Harvey and singer Kara Matthias.

Look for all things Irish, a little Vivaldi, and another great tale by Foley.

"This year's story is about an Irish wake, which are communal things in western Ireland," Foley says. "A man came to our rural village one Christmas. It was a rare thing in our small community for someone to just show up. A withdrawn Englishman, he took a room at the schoolmaster's house. There was much speculation as to who he was, especially because he didn't really mix with anybody. It turned out he was a writer, and he came to write about the ancient Irish tradition of keening at wakes.

"In the old days, it was compulsory that three or four widows would keen over the deceased at a wake. People also would sing the deceased's favorite songs, tell their favorite stories, drink and smoke pipes. The keening would start with loud praise by the women, followed by sobbing and crying. Then a simultaneous wail, a tremendous wail of sorrow that rose up from some place in humanity, would go on for as long as 20 minutes.

"It was an affecting experience," Foley says. "There was something so ancient about it. My grandmother used to say that the first person on earth sat down and wailed such a way after finding himself on this planet. That's how long keening has been going on.

"So the Englishman had come to record the keening, but after awhile, after no one in the village passed, my friends and I decided we would have to stage a wake for him. One of my neighbors posed as the corpse. Everyone was in on the joke but the Englishman. He recorded the keening, and then, well, I can't tell you or I'll give away the story."

Tomaseen Foley
Violinist Edwin Huizinga and guitarist William Coulter play a meld of baroque and Celtic in Tomaseen Foley's 'A Celtic Christmas.' [Photo by Michelle Magdalena]