“Magic of Christmas”
Portland Symphony Orchestra
Dec. 14-23, 2018
by Christopher Hyde
Bruce Hangen has returned after 39 years to conduct another series of the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s “Magic of Christmas” concerts at Merrill Auditorium. He has put the emphasis on the music to create a truly magical experience.
Assistance from one of Maine’s glorious sopranos, Elisabeth Marshall, the Windham Chamber Singers under Dr. Richard Nickerson, the 80-strong Magic of Christmas Chorus under Nicolás Alberto Dosman, Christopher Pelonzi on the Kotzschmar Organ and narrator Zach Handlen, helped make the season brighter for a couple of hours.
The orchestra and chorus collaborated well on the opening “A Christmas Festival,” a much better medley than is usually arranged, and an unusual Festival Gloria, which was powerful yet clear.
The orchestral arrangement of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” that followed, was worth the price of admission, but things got better still, with Marshall’s rendition of “Rejoice” from “Messiah,” one of the most difficult and highly ornamented arias in the repertoire.
I have never heard it performed as well. Most sopranos just sweat it out, but Marshall revealed its inner beauties with seeming ease. The orchestra and chorus sang the “Hallelujah” very well, but it was not this sort of revelation.
She was equally spectacular following intermission in a piece called “The Twelve Gifts of Christmas, in which her true love gives her gifts of individual instruments and sections of the orchestra. To add to the fun, each of the sections, when possible, plays an easily recognizable passage from the classics. A sort of Christmas “Young People’s Guide to the Orchestra.”
Marshall joined the Windham Chamber Singers, of which she is an alumna, in an authentic gospel version of “Go, Tell It On the Mountain.”
Handlen did a fine job of projecting over the orchestra in a clever musical version of “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” and paired with Marshall, the orchestra and choruses in a rousing “PSO Polar Express Suite.”
The Magic of Christmas Chorus was at its best in “Many Moods of Christmas,” with a tremendous march-like rendering of “Adeste Fideles.”
No “Magic” concert would be complete without a raucous version of “Sleigh Ride,” but Hangen killed two birds with one stone by having a youngster conduct it (as used to be the case with “Waltz of the Flowers”). “See, it’s easy, all you have to do is wave your arms until the music stops and then take a bow,” Hangen quipped. The requisite “Nutcracker” selection was filled by the “March,” with scurrying mice.
If I had any quibble with this year’s version of “Magic,’ it would be with the sing-along carols, which seemed a little heavy on the “Frosty the Snowman/Rudolf” side. Still, the most relevant and vital side of the holiday had already been covered by the orchestra and chorus, and the kids in the audience knew most of the words without a program.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.