The Portland Symphony Orchestra’s “Magic of Christmas” concert, which previewed Friday night at Merrill Auditorium, is radical, in the sense of returning to the roots. It is all about great music, well played and sung, with just a few of the bells and whistles that have attached themselves to the event over 32 years.

Yet it was fast-paced and lively enough so that the large number of children in the audience seemed enthralled.

If that weren’t enough, there were two fantastic aerialists dancing in the air to Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers,” singing by music director Robert Moody and the Longfellows, a Bowdoin College a cappella group, plus elves and Santa Claus.

The program began with “A Christmas Festival Overture” by Leroy Anderson, whose “Sleigh Ride” is a tradition of “Magic.” This arrangement is head and shoulders above the many other Christmas music medleys on offer this season.

It was followed by a really magical “Simple Holiday Joys,” in which the Magic of Christmas chorus was accompanied by Julianne Verret on recorder.

The level of performance remained at the highest level with the Longfellows a cappella chorus, whose jazz versions of Christmas favorites and, later, Handel’s “For Unto Us a Child is Born,” were subtle, reticent and harmonically gorgeous.

Two fusion works by the orchestra fully displayed its strengths. The first was “Overture to a Merry Christmas,” combining the overture to “The Marriage of Figaro” with “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” The second, “Little Bolero Boy,” substitutes the popular “Little Drummer Boy” for the repetitive theme in Ravel’s “Bolero.” Both arrangements, by Robert Wendel, were clever and well-composed.

The first half of the program ended with noted aerialists Shana Lord and Alexander Fedortchev dancing high above the stage to “The Waltz of the Flowers” from “The Nutcracker.” Their spectacular performance led to both gasps and a standing ovation from the large audience. Feminists attending “Magic” will enjoy the sight of the muscular Fedortchev dangling from Lord’s tiny wrist.

The surprise of the second half was Moody’s singing of the Bette Midler hit “The Rose.” He sounded good solo, but combined with the Longfellows the rendition was, as they say in Hollywood, amazing. That segued into an equally fine performance of “Lo, how a rose e’er blooming” by the full chorus.

The up-tempo “Hallelujah” chorus that followed was one of the best renditions I have heard lately, but I wish Americans would stop imitating a British king by standing up. Maybe it’s like a seventh inning stretch.

The Christmas sing-along was a rousing one, with more audience participation than usual, and was followed by another performance of the Cirque de la Symphonie aerialists to “Rocket Sleigh.”

The program concluded with the entire cast, including elves and Santa Claus, in “I Am But a Small Voice,” emphasizing the universal nature of the holidays.

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

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