“We need a little Christmas,” the old song goes, but Keith Lockhart begs to differ. What we need, he argued Wednesday at Symphony Hall, is quite a lot of Christmas, and the opening night of the Holiday Pops season aimed to supply it any way it could. Sacred and secular, classical and modern, madrigal and McCartney: The program ran the usual gamut of styles, approaches, and eras.
Where it differed from previous years was in a near-completist approach to the Christmas songbook. The Pops have covered plenty of ground before, but it seemed like there was hardly a yuletide carol that didn’t make the cut. It was as though Lockhart had discovered a new method of compressing songs, to fit even more of them into medleys.
That was how most of the songs were delivered, and while there’s no logical reason why structuring medleys around specific themes (beyond simply “Christmastime”) would create room for more holiday favorites in each, the extended pieces that resulted were nonetheless tighter than usual. Not to mention more satisfying: Baritone Justin Hopkins’s reading of “The Christmas Story,” with text from the Gospels and overhead illustrations by Tomie dePaola, was interspersed with a lovely, heartfelt series of songs such as “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “We Three Kings” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain” that placed each in its narrative context. It gave them a weight that went far beyond simply collecting them together.
To a slightly lesser extent, the same happened with the joyously shivering trot of “Tomorrow Is My Dancing Day” (compiling wassail songs), the puppy-eager “Wonderful!” (which covered both the title word and “bells”), and a Santa collection complete with the traditional visit from the big man himself. Even a playful juxtaposing of “Blue Christmas” and “The Christmas Blues” forged two similarly-toned numbers into a genteel supper-club lament.
Even so, some pieces were permitted to stand on their own. Handel’s “Messiah” burst right out of the gate with its standard “don’t bore us, get to the Chorus” approach (bolstered by the Tanglewood Festival Chorus), while the finger-snappy “Cool Yule” showcased the Pops’s sneakily effective big-band orchestra mode. And from harpist Jessica Zhou’s glissando intro through almost imperceptible dynamic shifts to the breathtaking moment when the full orchestra joined in on the motif previously carried only by the horns, Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers” retained its soft, elegant transcendence. It was enough to get anyone into the holiday spirit.
At Symphony Hall, Wednesday (continues through Dec. 31), www.bso.orgMarc Hirsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.