Portland Symphony Orchestra
“Magic of Christmas”
Dec. 8-17, 2017
by Christopher Hyde
The 38th annual “Magic of Christmas” series by the Portland Symphony Orchestra at Merrill Auditorium, omitted some of the bells and whistles of previous productions, but was alll the better for it, letting the music stand on its own, aided by sopranos Suzanne Nance and Susie Pepper.
The first half of the program was the least successful, consisting largely of medleys featuring the kind of holiday music played in department stores, albeit by a better orchestra.
Notable exceptions were an unknown Romanian carol, “O, ce vesti minuntã,” sung by Nance, and a bluesy version of “All I Want for Christmas is You,” by Pepper.
The solo orchestra was on display in a lively version of Prokofiev’s “Troika” from the “Lieutenant Kijė” Suite, which could have used a little more rehearsal time. This review is of opening night, and things are bound to improve over the next two weeks.
The prize for “it seemed like a good idea a the time” goes to a medley of songs with the word “magic” in them, with the orchestra backing up Pepper and Nance. Containing the word does not confer any distinction to the songs, but the light show was spectacular.
The second half of the show was marvelous, beginning with “Fanfare and Flourishes for a Festive Occasion,” played by a brass choir, with organ accompaniment by Ray Cornils.
The “Magic of Christmas” chorus, under chorus master Nicolás Dosman, contributed a striking chant-like “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” by Mack Wilberg, the arranger of three of the evening’s show pieces.
It was followed by a moving performance of “O Holy Night” by Nance, who sang it as well as any operatic soprano could. (Note to future PSO conductors: For full effect, it requires a boy soprano.)
The highlight of the evening was Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus. It is always good to hear this from a a major chorus and orchestra but both outdid themselves on Friday. The part singing by the chorus was perfectly delineated and balanced, without the muddiness that often mars its performance by a large group.
Pepper’s expansive version of “Let it Go,” from “Frozen,” captivated the younger members of the audience, dressed in holiday finery, some with reindeer antlers.
Music director Robert Moody, conducting his last “Magic of Christmas” series of concerts, sang “My Grown Up Christmas List,” with the orchestra conducted by Dosman. Moody has a surprisingly good voice, which sometimes reminded me of a French horn.
The traditional holiday carol sing-along seemed louder and livelier than usual, with Moody quipping that the audience was auditioning for next-year’s chorus.
The final “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” with chorus and soloists in a Wilberg arrangement, was especially appropriate in these times. Now if it could only be sung to the right tune…
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at email@example.com.