Portland Symphony Orchestra maestro Robert Moody conducts his first “Magic of Christmas” concert for the next two weekends at Merrill Auditorium.Southern Maine’s arts and entertainment calendar is filled with Christmas and “holiday” happenings, but none matches the drawing power of the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s annual “Magic of Christmas,” a two-weekend series of Pops-style concerts that attracts thousands of people to Merrill Auditorium.

Although maestro Robert Moody is now in his second year at the helm of the orchestra, 2009 marks his debut with “Magic.” He steps up to the podium this Friday.

Yearning to sing yourself with a few dozen top-notch singers and musicians to help? Try the “Messiah” sing-along on Dec. 14 in Portland. Another annual Christmas classic is “Victorian Nutcracker,” a signature production of Portland Ballet that plays Merrill Auditorium on Dec. 16.

‘Magic of Christmas’

Popularity comes with its challenges. Among them: What’s next year’s encore? And next and next. Ad infinitum.

The Portland Symphony Orchestra is continually facing that challenge. Its most popular offering is the annual “Magic of Christmas,” which pulls more than 20,000 people of all ages through the doors at Merrill Auditorium, a number that roughly totals all of its other concerts combined.

For many of those concert-goers, “Magic” is their sole connection with the symphony, while others are introduced to the PSO via the Christmas concerts and later come aboard for other programs. Plus it’s how many kids first attend a real symphony concert, and they represent the future of the orchestra.

Keeping those audiences coming back each year is one of the PSO’s ongoing challenges. And that means keeping “Magic” fresh and interesting. This year’s “Magic” marks the 30th edition.

Enter Robert Moody, the PSO’s much-liked maestro. Although he’s been music director of the orchestra for two seasons, due to scheduling conflicts in 2008, this year will be his first season at the helm of the Christmas concerts.

The central concept and cast for 2009 follows the previous 29 editions of “Magic.” The PSO will be joined by about 100 members of the Portland Community Chorus and an ensemble of vocal soloists in a program that mixes light classics, traditional Christmas carols and a few popular favorites. Among the annual must-do items is the “Hallelujah Chorus” from George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” and excerpts from Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker.”

Other longtime returning favorites include Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride.” Each year, “Magic” attendees anticipate the lively crack of the whip and the sleigh bells jingling as the musicians don festive and comical attire.

Carols and holiday tunes sung by the chorus this year include “Many Moods of Christmas” and the beautiful “O Holy Night.” The lively sing-along lets audience members join in on several popular Christmas songs.

Changes? Moody’s tenure to date has been marked by a number of creative alliances with other Maine artistic organizations. For “Magic,” he has tapped Freeport’s Figures of Speech Theatre – a much-lauded puppet troupe – to create a condensed adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”

With an accompanying musical score by Michael Runyan, dancers will animate the puppets and perform multiple roles while a solo actor provides the narration and character voices. The PSO expects this to be an annual centerpiece of “Magic.”

Another new feature will be a Rockettes-style kickline of dancing Santas, expected to be a sensationally comical element of the show.

Tenor Joe Cassidy will be the PSO’s principal visiting artist. His credentials include major Broadway roles in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and “1776,” plus he has appeared with 15 symphony orchestras around the country. Cassidy will narrate a version of the Nativity story as well as appear in a special surprise role with Moody.

Eleven performances of “Magic of Christmas” are planned at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall; the runs starts Dec. 11 and ends Dec. 20. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

‘Messiah’ sing-along

Professional musicians plus a rigorously trained chorus may be fine, you say, but wouldn’t it be fun to get into the act yourself? Just do it on Monday, Dec. 14, with a “Messiah” Sing-Along, hosted by the Choral Art Society and the Southern Maine Symphony Orchestra.

George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” is perhaps the most celebrated piece of classical music associated with the Christmas season, but there haven’t been any professional productions recently in southern Maine.

Here’s your chance to perform “Messiah” yourself, helped along by some really good singers and soloists, accompanied by an orchestra of up-and-coming future professionals. The CAS is tops in its field and SMSO mostly comprises students at the University of Southern Maine School of Music.

This past weekend I attended the CAS’ annual “Christmas at the Cathedral” and, as always, I was awed by the quality of the music and the overall experience. I’m not sure that I’ll be awed by my own performance in “Messiah.” And certainly nobody else will want to hear me. But I’ll probably give it a try.

Admission is by food donation to Project FEED. And I promise to sit way in the back and sing real softly. Hopefully you won’t even notice.

Bring your own score or borrow one at the door. The sing-along is scheduled at 7:30 p.m. at St. Patrick’s Church, 1251 Congress St. in Portland (beside the Westgate Shopping Center). Call Choral Art Society at 828-0043.

‘Victorian Nutcracker’

“Local is better” is a common refrain in journalism, and that’s one of the core concepts behind Portland Ballet’s imaginative staging of “The Nutcracker,” the Christmas terpsichorean classic. This special version plays Dec. 16 at Portland’s Merrill Auditorium.

Local angle? Portland Ballet artistic director Eugenia O’Brien had the idea to re-set the Christmas Eve party in the opening scene by changing its setting to Portland’s own Victoria Mansion – the celebrated Italianate edifice on Danforth Street – and re-imagining “Clara” and other familiar characters as historical Mainers from the late 19th century. I’ve seen Portland Ballet’s version several times, and the modification really works well.

From Christmas Eve in Portland, the second-scene action naturally flows into the snowy countryside, a sort of universal northern landscape that could be anywhere in Maine. And after intermission, the ballet reverts to the familiar in the Palace of Sweets, truly a universal realm of a child’s imagination – especially if the child happens to be an aspiring ballerina with a yen for sugary confections.

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s very lush and very famous score will be played by the Portland Ballet Orchestra, a professional ensemble under the of direction Lawrence Golan, the former concertmaster of the Portland Symphony.

Catch the “Victorian Nutcracker” at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 16. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

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