“This peculiar year.” That was how Keith Lockhart referred to the last 12 months, but if he’s unsettled by the state of the world, the conductor who kicked off the Boston Pops’ holiday season Tuesday at Symphony Hall projected a different demeanor entirely. Instead of seeking solace in visions of home and hearth, Lockhart and the Pops embraced the season’s joyous triumphalism practically as a mission statement. He wasn't going to let the Grinches grind him down.
The Pops opened with two blasts of majesty. “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” began with tinkling shimmers followed by rich brass saluting, leaving no doubt as to the titular proclamation even before a full-throated Tanglewood Festival Chorus joined in. It was much the same with Handel’s ”Hallelujah” chorus, even as they captured the softer sighs as well as the sharper hits. The Celtic feel of “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day” offered a changeup as it galloped, thumped, plunked, and yearned. And while “Final Waltz and Apotheosis” from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” lacked the familiarity of the ballet’s better-known numbers, it thrummed with triumph nonetheless.
The bulk of the first half was handed over to Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,” its abridged text narrated by actor Will LeBow in his resonant baritone. There was a heavy, percussive galumphing in Marley’s warning; a whirling reel for Fezziwig’s party; Dionysian glory accompanying the Ghost of Christmas Present; and an ominous rumble, high shivering strings, and chilling, ghostly moans from the chorus when the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come arrived. It seemed to offer a sampling of everything the Pops could do in one 25-minute chunk.
The seams began to show in the concert’s second half, if only briefly. The Mannheim Steamroller-styled “God Rest Ye Merry Kings” lacked the frosted, synthetic bluntness of its inspiration but also never quite coalesced as a result, and a choral (rather than narrated) “A Visit From St. Nicholas” lacked a unified tone, awkwardly linking tinkly Christmas wonder, big band bounce, and a whirling waltz.
“The Twelve Days of Christmas” should have suffered from the same, but the arrangement is far too ingenious — and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus performed it far too gleefully — for it to be anything other than a marvel. By the time the stuffed monkey on a flagpole made its appearance (don’t ask how), the choir member who’d been waiting patiently for the 12th day hoisted his prop with gusto.
That version has quickly become a Pops standard, alongside the effortlessly swooshing “Sleigh Ride” and the jazzy swing of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and “Frosty the Snowman,” but Lockhart broke with tradition by forgoing his traditional jokey banter with Santa Claus, who instead circulated among the crowd honoring requests for hugs (mostly from grown-ups, and mostly from women). The night ended with “White Christmas” arranged as a lush symphonic lullaby emphasizing the song’s oft-overlooked dreaming. The arrival of the choir midway through may have gilded the lily a bit, it’s true. But ’tis the season for it, in any year.
At Symphony Hall, TuesdayMarc Hirsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.