The Portland Symphony Orchestra’s annual “Magic of Christmas” program has consistently provided a portal into the spirited and spiritual realm of the holiday season. When the music starts up, any “humbug” feeling that a concertgoer might be harboring will more than likely be transformed into one of renewed enthusiasm.

The 40th edition of “Magic,” the first for new PSO Music Director Eckart Preu, proved that to be the case on opening night. The affable, red-jacketed conductor led a stage full of instrumentalists and singers through a program that hit many traditional highlights while adding a few new items, making for an overall uplifting program.

Pieces from the Baroque era dominated the first part of the evening. By way of introducing a centuries-old piece by Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, Preu jokingly noted that the indicators of Christmas music from the period are found in the emphasis on brass instruments and dance rhythms. His conducting style confirmed that he indeed likes to move with the music.

The brass section was later dispatched to opposite ends of the balcony to replicate composer Giovanni Gabrieli’s early attempt at a “stereo” effect.

The “Winter” section of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” spotlighted PSO regular Amy Sims’ violin work in a sparkling demonstration of what Preu described as the composer’s gift for creating musical images. The Bach/Gounod version of “Ave Maria” rivaled the ensemble’s take on the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s “Messiah” for moving moments within well-known sacred pieces.

The second half opened with the refreshing contrast of Lucas Richman’s “Hanukkah Festival Overture.” The PSO’s own Tom Parchman’s clarinet work combined with that of Sims on violin to enhance the spirit of klezmer within the piece.

Movie themes were introduced through selections from “Home Alone” by John Williams and “Elf” by John Debney. Chorus conductor Nicolás Alberto Dosman led the latter work and brought out aural subtleties, particularly within the slower part of the wordless piece.

Kevin Deas Photo courtesy of the Portland Symphony Orchestra

The real drama of the program, though, came with the participation of guest Kevin Deas who, cozily seated and wearing what looked to be a comfy sweater, recited “The Night Before Christmas” with the orchestra framing his rich baritone. Even more impressive was his later singing on the jazzy “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” More from Deas would have been welcomed, judging by the crowd’s enthusiastic response.

The traditional “Magic” take on “Sleigh Ride” had Preu urging the orchestra to perform a sporting event-like wave at one point while the finale had all rise for a stirring singalong.

Organist James Kennerley manned the mighty Kotzschmar to add spiritual weight while well-placed stage décor and colorful lighting put the final elements in place for this merry musical start to the season.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.


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