Once again, Helicon celebrates the solstice

December 19, 1992|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

Most of us know what it's like waiting for Santa -- the breathless anticipation, the hopeful anxiety, the unspoken fear that maybe he won't come at all -- because it's a typical part of most children's Christmas memories.

But how many of us can say that we've experienced the same sort of seasonal suspense while waiting for Doc Watson?

Helicon can. It happened a few years ago, when Watson was the guest artist for the Baltimore group's annual Winter Solstice concert at Goucher College. It seemed like it had the makings of a perfect evening of music -- ticket sales were good, a crew from National Public Radio was coming, and Helicon and Watson had already arranged to do an encore together.

It would have been perfect, except for one thing: show time had arrived, and Doc Watson hadn't.

"His plane was stuck on the runway in Charlotte," recalls Ken Kolodner, Helicon's hammered dulcimer player. "He could not even get off the plane -- they were in the queue -- to let us know that they were still down there.

"We finally called the airport and found out that he was still down there at, like, seven o'clock that evening," he adds. "We were supposed to have worked out this encore together, but he didn't show up till about 9:30, just as we were getting offstage. There was no time for sound check. He just basically walked onstage, and we just winged our encore.

"People in the audience didn't have any perception that this was going on, but we certainly did."

Still, given what a long-running success Helicon's seasonal shows have become over the years, no one in the group seems inclined to complain about Doc Watson's airline troubles. Indeed, the group's annual Winter Solstice concert is not only an established part of Baltimore's Christmas culture, it's a hot ticket, to boot -- tonight's show at Kraushaar with harper Patrick Ball has been sold out for at least a week.

The group remains both flattered and heartened by the response these shows have engendered. "We had a tremendous turnout the first year," says flutist Chris Norman. "We were very much surprised. I guess we had about 400, 450 people -- which was a lot at that time.

"This is our seventh annual show. We've continued to do it each year on our own. And as we've grown, so the concert has grown as well. It's really a celebration for us, particularly now that we're touring so much. It's a great opportunity for us to come back to Baltimore and play for our favorite audience."

Neither Norman nor Kolodner ever expected it to turn out this way. When Helicon did its first Christmas show, the duo -- Helicon has since become a trio with the addition of guitarist Robin Bullock -- essentially saw the show as a sort of bridge, one of the first steps in moving the group out of the folk clubs and into concert halls.

"Really, it was at the suggestion of Busy Graham, who was at that time an agent for the group Metamora," says Norman. "We were in a formative stage of our development, and she suggested we put on a Christmas concert. That was the impetus for the first concert. It was ourselves and Metamora."

"Initially we did not perceive ourselves as the headliner," adds Kolodner. "But one thing we found out from the very first concert was that many people were there to see us -- as well as, of course, Metamora. But I think we started to realize that we

actually have a good following in town here."

But even as that following grew, Helicon always made sure to balance the show with an interesting musical guest. "Each year we've tried to make it a very different sort of night," says Kolodner. "Last year we had Eugene Friesen and Glenn Velez from the Paul Winter Consort; this year we have Patrick Ball. And in the past we've had Alison Krauss, who's more of a bluegrass type, and John McCutcheon, who sort of spans the world of traditional folk music."

Likewise, Helicon tries to maintain a sense of musical variety in its own performances. Part of that means finding new music to play each year -- a task that's not as daunting as you'd think -- and part involves drawing from a wide range of seasonal songs.

"The thrust of our group is really to play traditional folk music from all over the world, which certainly encompasses the Christian traditions but also other ones as well," says Norman. "We get our material from all over."

"For example, we might do some klezmer music," says Kolodner. "We might do a Greek carol and a Haitian carol, as well as just sort of wintry tunes that have sort of a wintry title or feel to them, whatever that may be."

HELICON

When: Tonight, 8 p.m.

Where: Kraushaar Auditorium, Goucher College.

Tickets: Sold out.

0&Call: (410) 337-6333 for information.

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