The traditional carol “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day” likely dates to the 1500s. David Coleman’s “The Good News Voyage” was commissioned two years ago. It’s one of the wonders of what the Holiday Pops do that it can cover more than four centuries of music and present it as a coherent program. At Friday’s season opener at Symphony Hall, Keith Lockhart showed off his orchestra’s seamless versatility with a program that featured Tchaikovsky, Harry Belafonte, Vaughan Williams, big band swing, Queen, and a Gen-Z lingo-spouting Santa declaring “Holiday Pops just hits different, no cap.”
That’s because the Pops knows not only that celebrating the holidays is largely about tradition but also that those traditions can differ from family to family. Certainly, there were selections that have fit snugly within the mass-cultural imagination for well over a century. A suite from Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” (accompanied by illustrations by Jan Brett) ventured beyond the more familiar themes to showcase courtly dances, a lush winterland sweep, and, upon the arrival of the Mouse King, dramatic tension from snare drums and a dark pitter-patter creeping in from the reeds.
”Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day” was a festive gallop with its tootling woodwinds suggesting medieval revelry, while Vaughan Williams’s “Fantasia on Christmas Carols” provided a more hushed, stilled take on the occasion; a low cello wound its way down to meet Andrew Garland’s sonorous baritone before the “ooh”s of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus added a layer of warmth.
But there was also the calypso of “Mary’s Little Boy Child,” slightly awkward with rhythms that didn’t fit naturally with an orchestra or a choir, played in tribute to the late Belafonte. The chorus worked better on “The Good News Voyage,” a journey of African-American musical styles from spirituals to cinematically lush ’70s soul that began exclusively with percussion — hand drums, xylophone, and shaker — before expanding gorgeously. And Lucas Richman’s “Tikkun Olam (Heal The World),” which grew from feather-light to large and determined before dropping down to the choir at its quietest, was a prayer for peace and justice that put the responsibility on us rather than a higher power.
The Pops, of course, has traditions of its own, from big-band renditions of “Frosty the Snowman” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” (with Santa entering to his own theme song like a wrestler) to the audience sing-along medley. But it is also establishing new ones, such as the guest conductor on “Sleigh Ride”; hamming it up amiably with a little soft-shoe and a spin was National Guard Major General Gary W. Keefe, Lockhart having moved to the percussion section for whip-crack duty. And “The Twelve Days of Christmas” has rapidly established itself as a modern Pops classic, presenting nearly the full range of the orchestra’s capabilities in nine minutes, from Beethoven’s Fifth to “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The best thing about holiday traditions, the Pops seemed to say, is when we make new ones together.
At Symphony Hall, Friday. Repeats through Dec. 24.
Marc Hirsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Bluesky @spacecitymarc.bsky.social.