If the members of Helicon ever tried to sneak through a holiday season without performing their annual Winter Solstice Concert, they'd never hear the end of it.
Fans of the Baltimore trio, known for its magical renditions of folk melodies from around the world, still mourn the group's dissolution in the mid-1990s.
"There was certainly a lot of disappointment out there," says Ken Kolodner, who plays the hammered dulcimer and fiddle.
That's why, in part, Kolodner, 49, and fellow group members Chris Norman and Robin Bullock, both 39, reunite every December for the concert, now in its 18th year. The Helicon concert returns to Kraushaar Auditorium at Goucher College for two shows on Saturday after an eight-year stand at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.
No matter the demand, if the concert wasn't fun to do, it wouldn't happen, says Kolodner. Each year, though, he adds, he, Norman and Bullock rediscover that "we still love to play and we sound great together and it's really fun."
And, most important for the onstage chemistry the group is noted for, "We actually did find that we enjoyed each other," Kolodner says.
As Helicon's members have followed their individual musical paths, devotees have followed them as well, attending concerts and snatching up their many recordings, both solo and group efforts. Kolodner continues to tour as a solo artist and occasionally with others, and leads hammered-dulcimer workshops around the country.
Bullock, who plays guitar, cittern, mandolin and piano, now lives in France, but performs on both sides of the Atlantic. Norman has acquired a global reputation for his mastery of the wooden flute, and every summer directs the Boxwood Festival & Workshop in Nova Scotia for other flutists.
Helicon's fans can also chart milestones and changes in their own lives by the annual solstice concert.
Over 16 years, "I've taken two wives and countless friends there" (including a number from Pittsburgh willing to brave the Pennsylvania Turnpike in winter), says Kevin Gibbins, a 45-year-old farrier who lives in Ellicott City. No matter who he's attending the concert with, Gibbins says it has become "a Christmas tradition; just a nice night out and then we go out to dinner." Currently, "I'm married, and still taking my wife to the Helicon concerts," he says.
Kathy Shulman, who lives in Wyman Park, attended her first Helicon winter concert about 12 years ago. More recently, she launched her own tradition of throwing a "Helicon party" in her home, before or after the show, for a group of friends. "We get so caught up here in the United States with our American version of Christmas," but the concert "opens up the holidays to what it should all be about, just celebrating and reflecting and enjoying," Shulman says.
The concert, lighthearted and casual, is an antidote to her childhood experience at the Meyerhoff, where Shulman had "the feeling [that] I have to behave. The best part is [Helicon's] invitation to really not behave and enjoy yourself and be a kid again."
Shulman, a 43-year-old social activist, and her friends are "pulled" back to the concert every year. "I can't imagine the holidays without Helicon," she says.
Lawyer Ford Loker attended his first solstice concert about nine years ago with his girlfriend. They returned the next year, and the third year, Loker made sure they had front-row seats. It "looked like so much fun to be up close," says Loker, a 56-year-old Baldwin resident. Stage-side, "you can talk to [the musicians)] during breaks and scream 'Bravo!' and they will look and smile at you."
Several performances later, Loker's girlfriend became his wife. They continue to attend the concerts faithfully. "It's always been a private, kind of romantic, date, followed by dinner," he says.
Peg Patterson first attended Helicon's Winter Solstice Concert about 14 years ago. Since then, much has changed in her life. "When I first started going, I was newly divorced, and I was doing one type of work," says Patterson, who lives in Arbutus. Back then, she was processing claims, but now she is a facilitator and mediator in the office of training at the Social Security Administration. "I feel like I've grown so much over that period of time," says Patterson, 63.
Usually Patterson attends the concert with Diana Landergren, a friend since 1954. "For us, it is a time to definitely get together to go to dinner and just get carried away with the music."
This year, Landergren has other plans, so Patterson will go with another friend.
Kolodner and Bullock played for Wendy Shuford's 50th birthday 11 years ago, and Bullock has performed five concerts at Shuford's home. The Cross Keys resident, a nurse, is a regular at the holiday show.
"They make a big part of my holiday," says Shuford, who has volunteered to distribute fliers for the group. "The atmosphere is very celebratory. And I know them. One time when they were coming down the aisle of the Meyerhoff, one [member] nodded in recognition," she says. "That's very special."
When: 3:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Kraushaar Auditorium, Goucher College, 1021 Dulaney Valley Road, Towson.
Tickets: $25 at the door or $22 in advance; $20 for groups of 15 or more; $18 for groups of 30 or more. To get advance tickets, call 410-243-7254 or visit www.kenkolodner.com.