Robert Moody is now in his fourth year as music director of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, and this week marks the third time he has conducted the orchestra’s ever-popular “Magic of Christmas” holiday program.

Each year, we hear about how things will be different, new and improved, better than ever. This year, those claims may have more substance than usual.

Clearly comfortable in his role in Portland and his stature as classical music’s local go-to guy, Moody will step out from behind the podium to sing a solo during this year’s program – “The Rose,” the title song to the 1979 movie made popular by Bette Midler.

“Magic” begins with a preview on Friday and formally opens Saturday at Merrill Auditorium. Including the preview, for which all seats cost $25, the orchestra will perform “Magic” 11 times through Dec. 18.

Moody is a trained singer. He studied voice as a younger man, and often lends his voice to sing-alongs hosted by the orchestra.

But stepping out to solo is something new.

“Robert is amazing,” said Alice Kornhauser, the orchestra’s marketing and communications director.

“He has such a presence. People have heard him do fun stuff and seen him perform, but people have never seen him step into the spotlight and express himself as a performer. They’re going to love to see that. It’s going to be pretty awesome.”

Moody built this year’s program after soliciting input from the orchestral community. He’s gotten to know the community well during his time here, and better understands what people want and how they will respond. This year’s “Magic” has less shtick and schmaltz, and more substance and musical authenticity.

The theatrical flair that been part of recent “Magic” programs has a place, and provides a nice accent to the music. But it can also distract from the core of the program, which is beautiful musical that enhances the experience of Christmas.

Among this year’s highlights:

Cirque de la Symphonie will perform graceful acrobatic feats to complement the music for Tchaikovky’s “Waltz of the Flowers,” “The Rose” and “Rocket Sleigh,” a composition by Delvyn Case.

The orchestra will once again perform Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride,” as well as the sing-along of well-known Christmas songs, during which the audience is encouraged to stand and sing.

Two a cappella groups will join the symphony. For opening weekend, the Bowdoin College Longfellows will perform. The second weekend will feature the Maine Steiners.

Festivities will begin before each performance. Students from the Maine Suzuki Association will perform a preconcert program at 1 p.m. Sunday and Dec. 18. For all other performances, organist Ray Cornils will perform a prelude as the audience arrives.

The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram will have a donation box in the lobby for the Bruce Roberts Toy Fund, which provides toys annually to needy families during the holidays.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: pphbkeyes