What time of year is it? Well, a clue might be that members of the Portland Symphony Orchestra are wearing their Santa hats again.

After a year relegated to an online performance only, the “Magic of Christmas,” in its 42nd incarnation, is back before live audiences in full and shorter, family-friendly versions, as well as in digital form for those who prefer to watch online.

On a soggy and cold Saturday afternoon, a masked, multi-generational crowd patiently made its way through the various stages of security and into Merrill Auditorium for a full, two-hour program (including intermission) of seasonal classics mixed with some slightly more serious fare.

The program was a little less spectacular in its variety than in years past. There were no ballet dancers or acrobats this time, if one doesn’t count conductor Eckart Preu’s expressive gestures and gyrations on the podium. The emphasis was on the music, and it radiated enough warmth to instill a harmonious spirit in most folks.

Singer Laura Darrell, a Maine native, performs with the Portland Symphony Orchestra in “Magic of Christmas.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Guest singer Laura Darrell was a perky treat. The petite soprano, who has appeared with the PSO in the past, including as a child, revealed a soaring vocal style of the sort found in current Broadway musicals. She offered a stirring take on “For the First Time in Forever” from the movie “Frozen” and later topped herself with an enchanting “Walking in the Air” from “The Snowman.”

Darrell hit closer to home with a sweet version of “White Christmas” and a visit to the feel-good nostalgia of “The Maine Christmas Song,” on which she was joined by The Magic of Christmas Chorus.


The chorus got into the act early with “The Very Best Time of the Year,” which Preu rightly described as “delicate” and to which the dozens of singers gave a rich, understated performance. They would later bring the crowd to their feet when, under the leadership of chorus master Nicolás Alberto Dosman, they powered up for Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus from Messiah.

Joined by the chorus, the PSO reached again into the spiritual realm with the distinctive rhythms of the “Festive Sounds of Hanukkah.” The orchestra’s take on the traditional “Christmas Canticles” earlier had added a sense of vital majesty.

In its premiere, “The Toy Factory” by John Wineglass, featuring PSO winds and percussion, suggested a playful, dancelike ambiance not unlike that found in some of the work of Tchaikovsky.

Former Portland municipal organist Ray Cornils, who alternates performances with his successor James Kennerley, added heft to a couple of pieces from his keyboard at the mighty Kotzschmar Organ. An obscure, pulsing “Toccata” stood out from the more embracing sounds that otherwise characterized the show.

Warmly lit moments with the incandescent “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and the whinnying trumpet of “Sleigh Ride” led to a spirited “Christmas Sing-A-Long” that gifted the parting audience with plenty of options for continued vocalizing as they made their way home.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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