The Portland Symphony Orchestra’s “Magic of Christmas” series, Dec. 12 to 21, has something for everyone. Artistic director Robert Moody has emphasized entertainment value in the rapid-paced program and largely succeeded. On opening night, the entertainment seemed in surround-sound, with a new act popping up every few minutes, all around Merrill Auditorium.
The festivities opened with the full orchestra in holiday garb playing “Rocket Sleigh.” As soon as the applause died down the spotlight switched to Inanna, Sisters in Rhythm, in the lower right-hand corner of the hall, playing Soboninko from the Malinke people of Guinea. The driving polyrhythms of the piece, on native percussion instruments, and the call-and-response singing, were as exciting as an Inanna performance usually is.
They were followed almost instantaneously by the Flukes in the upper right balcony, playing a Hawaiian Christmas song, Mele Kalikimaka. Flukes stands for Falmouth Library Ukulele Ensemble, and they are really good at what they do. The performance was charming.
Next up was the string trio, Simply Three, from the left balcony, playing “Happy” on violin, viola and bass. The well-known trio serves up popular music with a classical bent, including embellishments that seem halfway between a thematic variation and a riff.
Then it was organist Ray Cornils’ turn, on the newly renovated Kotzschmar Organ, the console keyboards in full view, with variations on “Here We Come a Wassailing” and “Deck the Halls.”
I have always thought that “Good King Wenceslas,” one of my favorite carols, would make a good set of variations suited to the progress of the story, and here it was, beautifully rendered by the orchestra’s viola section. Later on, they performed a moving arrangement of “Lo, How a Rose E’re Blooming.”
Simply Three returned twice more, in variations on “Jingle Bells,” with PSO concertmaster Charles Dimmick, and solo in “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” both highly imaginative and well played.
Two orchestral selections from “The Nutcracker,” “In the Christmas Tree,” and “Mother Ginger,” were danced to by members of the Maine State Ballet, the first as a graceful and romantic pas de deux and the second by the Portland Sea Dogs mascot Slugger, in full costume. Both were a welcome change from the more often-heard “Nutcracker” selections.
The second, more traditional part of the program, after intermission, was more of a mixed bag, with some outstanding moments, such as the “Hallelujah” from “Messiah” sung by the Magic of Christmas Chorus with full orchestra, the trademark “Sleighride,” and an energetic holiday carol sing-along led by assistant conductor Norman Huynh.
The opening “Carol of the Bells” with Simply Three, the chorus and orchestra, was well thought out, almost like a concerto grosso with the trio as the concertino (smaller group of instruments performing the role of soloist). but the forces could have been better balanced.
I also enjoyed the chorus in “Sure on this Shining Night,” with words by James Agee, and a rousing version of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” as a finale.
WHERE: Merrill Auditorium, Portland
REVIEWED: Dec. 12
“Magic of Christmas” continues through Dec. 21 at Merrill Auditorium. Get tickets: tickets.porttix.com