- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 15, 2004

There’s something about the sound of a hammered dulcimer that makes you think of, well, Christmas. And this week, you’ll have a chance to hear some of the best hammered-dulcimer players around in a series of concerts showcasing holiday music.

Perennial favorite Maggie Sansone presents three concerts this week at area venues. Tomorrow in Herndon, she appears in “A Celtic Holiday Celebration,” featuring Lisa Moscatiello, Sue Richards, Fred Lieder and Irish step dancers from the Culkin School of Traditional Irish Dance.

Friday finds Miss Sansone at the Black Rock Center for the Arts in Germantown, along with Dominick Murray, all-Ireland button accordion champion Billy McComiskey (evening concert only), flutist Laura Byrne, fiddler Dave Abe, Donna Long and step dancers from the Kevin Broesler School of Irish Dance.

The Germantown lineup will reconvene Saturday at the Birchmere.

Miss Sansone, the guiding force behind the 15-year-old Maggie’s Music label of Shady Side, Md. — which features early music and Celtic-tinged acoustic soloists and ensembles — almost single-handedly established the hammered dulcimer’s connection with the holidays with her 1988 album “Sounds of the Season.”

Since then, her distinctive “chamber folk” sound has been featured in a series of collaborations on award-winning Christmas and other albums featuring music from medieval times to modern American compositions.

What ties it all together, Miss Sansone says, is the hammered dulcimer’s ability to transcend genre in some unexpected ways.

“Take ‘Joy to the World,’ ” she says, “which we start playing slowly. But then we speed it up. You wouldn’t have guessed it, but it makes a wonderful jig.”

For this month’s concerts, Miss Sansone composed a set list that includes treatments of the Wexford Carol, French carols, tunes from Brittany, and familiar and not-so-familiar American tunes. Underlying them all is at least a trace of the Celtic.

“I think Celtic music touches a chord in people, no matter what their ancestry,” she says. “It’s survived invasions, banishment and cultural restrictions. Everybody can relate to that.”

Over the years, Miss Sansone has championed tunes from the reign of 13th-century Spanish King Alfonso X, whose court included Moorish and Jewish musicians. Recently, she has been studying the santoor, the Persian version of the hammered dulcimer, and she frequently incorporates Persian rhythms and harmonies.

That’s part of what makes her take on a familiar carol so fresh. Her juxtaposition of deceptively simple melodies and surprisingly intricate harmonies manages to capture the spirit, as well as the sounds, of the season.

There’s a certain coming-home quality to the holidays, whether it’s college students back between terms or grandchildren piling into the house. So it’s no surprise that the now-defunct trio Helicon chooses to reunite once a year for its winter solstice concert at Goucher College in Baltimore. This year’s concert is Saturday.

“We don’t just recycle old tunes,” says Ken Kolodner, who plays hammered dulcimer and fiddle. “We’ve all got something new to share.”

The group, which in the mid-‘80s and early ‘90s featured wooden-flutist Chris Norman and uber-guitarist Robin Bullock along with Mr. Kolodner, earned much acclaim for its spirited renditions of folk tunes but disbanded late in the ‘90s as its members pursued separate interests.

Nova Scotian Chris Norman has played with Camerata Bariloche, a chamber orchestra from Argentina; has appeared with the Baltimore Consort; and now fronts his own group, the Chris Norman Ensemble, featuring the dance music of the 16th- to 19th-century Celtic world.

Mr. Bullock moved to France and still manages to collaborate with a number of artists, including Al Petteway and Amy White in a recent holiday-themed project.

Despite their separate endeavors, the three are hardly strangers.

“We’ve all moved in different directions musically, but we play on each other’s recordings,” says Mr. Kolodner, who gets a little help from Mr. Bullock on his new album.

That would be “Journey to the Heartland” for Maggie’s Music, which features Mr. Kolodner’s spare but soulful takes on melodies that move easily from old-time Appalachian tunes to “Caspian’s Return,” a song he composed at daughter Hillary’s request after the family’s golden retriever, Caspian, was run over by a car.

For the winter solstice concert, there will be more than a few old favorites, including Gustav Holst’s “In the Bleak Midwinter.” And, Mr. Kolodner says, the three relish the idea of playing together once more.

“Stylistically, I’m an ensemble player,” he says. “One of the things I do best is to play off other people. I spend a lot of my time thinking of what I’m going to do when I’m not playing the tune.”

Like the family that comes together on the holidays, the three easily fall into old patterns of give and take, leavened of course with just a bit of extra experience.

For more on the music of both Maggie Sansone and Ken Kolodner, visit www.maggiesmusic.com.

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