The Portland Symphony Orchestra appropriately scheduled its “Golden Age of Motown” pops concert in the middle of Black History month, but that musical phenomenon of the ’60s still has universal appeal.

The crowd at Merrill Auditorium on Saturday night gave a rousing standing ovation to the orchestra, under Robert Moody, and guest vocalists Joy Lynn Matthews and Tituss Burgess.

Moody said the concert celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Motown sound, but Motown, the first black-owned music label, was started by Berry Gordy in 1959. Its first No. 1 U.S. pop hit, “Please Mr. Postman” by the Marvelettes, however, was released in 1961.

Over the next decade Motown had 110 top 10 hits, and the orchestra and singers proceeded to show why. Moody has conducted this program before, and there were virtually seamless segues between the still-popular numbers, like “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.” The versatile voices and inviting stage presence of the performers, solo and together, didn’t hurt, either.

They started (and encored) with “ABC” by the Jackson 5, and maintained that level all evening, through a variety of styles, by Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, the Commodores, Rick James, Stevie Wonder, Mary Wells, the Temptations and others.

The Motown Sound is a fusion of pop rock and soul, the latter with its roots in gospel singing. At first Gordy groomed his Motown stable of talent to make their work more accessible to white America, but soon the songs had developed a more cutting edge and were still hits. Saturday’s program reflected that evolution, up to Marvin Gaye’s great Vietnam War song, “What’s Going On,” given a moving performance by Burgess.

The later songs also featured more “gospel shouting,” which is like falsetto but isn’t. It was something new in pop music at the time, and both Burgess and Matthews have it down pat.

I don’t know who wrote the orchestral arrangements, but they were fine and cleverly done. “Money (That’s What I Want),” charmingly belted out by Matthews, was preceded by some lush Puccini, and the Motown medleys had some great contrasts, such as a melodic cello solo from “The Tears of a Clown,” in the middle of Motown’s more characteristic driving rhythms.

“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” a duet between Burgess and Matthews, ended the evening on a high note.

Gladys Knight’s “Midnight Train to Georgia,” one of the few songs not on the top 100 list, prompted some thoughts about Motown rhythms. Although all are delightfully different, most of them feature a single hard beat to a bar with other patterns around it — the rhythm of the railroads that carried the people north. Ironic, considering that the label originated in Detroit.

Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at:

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