A nostalgic spell is being cast over Merrill Auditorium. The 39th annual “Magic of Christmas” celebration is, as the Beatles might have said, back to where it once belonged.

With less flash than in recent years and a renewed emphasis on tradition, the Portland Symphony Orchestra and guests are presenting an enjoyable sampler of sacred and secular music that effectively balances inspiration and entertainment.

Guest conductor Bruce Hangen recalled how he was present at the beginning of this local tradition and, with a crisp but friendly approach at the podium, he and the PSO, along with the Magic of Christmas Chorus, offered a strong overture to what would follow on Saturday afternoon. “A Christmas Festival” and “Festival Gloria” set the mood, the latter particularly engaging in achieving subtle harmonies.

Familiar pieces by Bach and Handel followed, with soprano Elisabeth Marshall taking the stage to give spirited life to the Messiah’s theme of “Rejoice.” The Chorus would later end the first half of the program with an exultant “Hallelujah.”

It was gratifying to learn that Maine native Marshall had once been a member of the Windham Chamber Singers before embarking on a professional career. She and that group’s latest crop of youthful singers brought home a soulful, finger-snapping take on “Go, Tell It On the Mountain.”

Elisabeth Marshall, center sings along with the Windham Chamber Singers during the matinee performance of the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s Magic of Christmas Friday, December 14, 2018.

A bit of playful drama ensued as local actor Zack Handlen recited “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” He would later play a different sort of conductor as part of the “Suite from the Polar Express.”

Levity was further added by the appearance of a Santa who, it seemed, may have wandered in from a local comedy club. The enlisting of a young fellow from the audience to take the podium for a time also grabbed attention.

One could argue for several moments in the program being truly magical but the “Silent Night” section within the “Many Moods of Christmas Suite 1” had to be near the top of the list. Of course, it’s always a meaningful tune for many but this version put all the elements together for a moving highlight.

The second half of the program teased the crowd a bit with all-too-brief excerpts from the “Nutcracker” and glimpses of the PSO’s range during a variation on “The Twelve Gifts of Christmas” that had Marshall calling out sections of the orchestra for instrumental support. Included was a bit of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony that was over far too soon.

A robust sing-along ended the afternoon on a note of collective celebration that is always a big part of what makes this PSO tradition an enduring one.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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