It wouldn’t be Christmas in Boston without the Pops. That’s been a tacit article of faith, the Pops’ yearly holiday programming having long since staked its claim as one of the pillars of the Hub’s yuletide celebration.
If any year was going to test that faith, it would’ve been this one. Given a pandemic that continues to worsen by the day, it’s unlikely anyone would have blamed Keith Lockhart if he’d decided to hibernate through the winter months. But there’s that pesky thought again: It wouldn’t be Christmas without the Pops. And if the Pops’ 2020 holiday program (streaming via BSO.org until Jan. 9) naturally can’t compare to experiencing it live in Symphony Hall, its mere existence is enough all by itself to make it look a lot like Christmas.
Changes abound, of course, even beyond the socially distanced musicians and the masks on everyone whose instrument doesn’t go into their mouths. The stream doesn’t feature a continuous concert, instead collecting discrete new performances punctuated by Lockhart in classic Christmas-special sitting-room-chair mode. With a handful of Fenway Park performances, a smattering of archival footage, and all singers recorded offsite or via Zoom, it can’t help but be a more disjointed affair than usual.
Ironically, if understandably, being forced into a new format seems to have prompted the Pops to avoid bold choices in its selections. A typical Holiday Pops concert might feature lesser-known material by Gian Carlo Menotti, Hector Berlioz, or Ottorino Respighi alongside the ancient yuletide carols and medleys of more modern Christmas standards. The closest the Pops comes this year is with a handful of spirituals ranging from the soft, awestruck wonder of “My Lord, What a Morning” to the calypso-infused “Mary’s Boy Child.”
On the other hand, the new format offers a neat spotlight on individual musicians. The editing of “Sleigh Ride” shows the wood slaps of the whipcracks immediately before the curving swoop of the strings that immediately follow. And a drum fill during the big-band hepcat jazz of “Cool Yule” that might otherwise have passed relatively unnoticed gets a worthy emphasis.
Even so, and even with such Holiday Pops mainstays as the sing-along (filmed in days gone by with a wise focus on the audience, not the orchestra) and Lockhart’s reliably corny visit with Santa (Zooming in from a tropical island), some things that easily fly in a full Symphony Hall were muted. “The Twelve Days of Christmas” in particular missed the energy of the room, which wasn’t helped by the absence of the props that help fuel many of the jokes of the Pops’ wickedly inventive arrangement.
But if a fragmented streaming concert can’t help but fall just a little short, well, that’s 2020 for you. Even at reduced strength and at a distance several times over, Lockhart and his orchestra can’t help but provide some degree of continuity and normalcy. That’s something we need just as much as a little Christmas right now.
BOSTON POPS 2020 HOLIDAY CELEBRATION CONCERT
$30. Through Jan. 9. www.bso.org/brands/bso/features/bso-now.aspx
Marc Hirsh can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @spacecitymarc