Magic: Characterized by, or having the powers or effects of, magic, hence enchanting; as a magic land or scene.

Or, something the Portland Symphony Orchestra has been making at Christmas for the past 35 years.

I recall taking my grandchild, Jordan Seavey, to his first “Magic of Christmas” concert several years ago, the one with oversized puppets from Figures of Speech Theatre.

I noticed at intermission that he was quietly in tears. We had been sitting in the nosebleed section of the balcony, and I thought he might be disturbed by the height or by the scary puppets in “A Christmas Carol.” Not at all; he was afraid the orchestra might not come back.

Like Jordan, many children are more fascinated by the musical instruments of the orchestra than by anything else, including Santa Claus, who is a lot more ubiquitous at this season.

The “Magic of Christmas” tradition began with a three-concert series in 1980, programmed by then-music director Bruce Hangen, who had participated in a similar Christmas series with the Denver Symphony. Since that time, it has grown and evolved into today’s 12-concert extravaganza that provides about one fifth of the orchestra’s annual budget, including ticket sales, contributions, grants and foundation giving.

Hornist Nina Miller, who has performed in the program since its beginning, calculates that she will have played 386 “Magic” concerts after this year’s final “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” Some seasons totaled 15 programs, at one time including three concerts per day.

“It’s tiring, even exhausting,” she said, “but the energy that each audience brings to Merrill Auditorium makes the show new and exciting to us each time.”

The music probably gets better with each performance, since the orchestra starts with just one rehearsal, plus a dress rehearsal open to the public.

“Magic of Christmas” has had many guest artists over the years – puppets, Broadway stars and aerial artists – but those that stand out in Miller’s mind are some of the early readers, including Margaret Hamilton, known for her portrayal of the classic Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz”; David Ogden Stiers of “MASH,” who conducted the orchestra; and a couple who brought their Dachshund on stage to howl along with the music.

Some years, of course, are better than others. Miller recalls an orchestral revolt over Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride,” which has become a tradition with orchestra and conductor in elaborate and sometimes bizarre costumes, when symphony officials had ordered lavish stage decorations, in the best of taste, and decided that the raucous “Sleigh Ride” would be out of place.

“The orchestra did it anyway,” said Miller. There was more kidding around during the Hangen years, she said, with the conductor sometimes changing the beat from 4/4 to 3/4 during a number in an attempt to confuse the orchestra.

She continues to be impressed by the devotion of the Magic of Christmas Chorus, which keeps the same grueling schedule as the orchestra, without being paid for it.

One thing missing in recent years has been the selection of a child from the audience to conduct the orchestra, usually in a performance of the “Waltz of the Flowers” from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” Suite.

During a recent “Heroes”-themed Discovery concert, four young children were invited to come on stage and conduct. They were chosen because they each had attended the “Conductor’s Corner” prior to the concert, where they learned the basics of conducting. Maybe something similar could be done for “Magic of Christmas.”

This year’s show has something for everyone, including a revival of the hour-long pre-concert organ prelude by Ray Cornils on the refurbished Kotzschmar Organ. Other guests will include vocalist Susie Pepper, the Simply Three String Trio, Inanna, Sisters in Rhythm and dancers from the Maine State Ballet.

Special mention should go to a 45-member ensemble founded by Miller with instruments far removed from the French horn – the Falmouth Library Ukulele Ensemble, or FLUKES, which will play the Hawaiian Christmas song Mele Kalikimaka.

Most of the works on the program this year are short and sweet, well-suited to a child’s attention span, but adults should appreciate the opportunity to hear the “Hallelujah Chorus” performed by full orchestra and chorus.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:

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