Review: The Pops revives glorious Christmases past

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Philly Pops conductor David Charles Abell with Santa Claus.

All music resonates with, or is set against, the times in which it is performed, and there's a point in the Philly Pops' Christmas Spectacular when you feel the strong need to check what year it is.

The city's longest-running time machine is back - through Dec. 22 - and never have we needed it more. You can have today's cynical social media, demagogues and near-demagogues, and conspicuously consuming one-percenters. The Philly Pops remembers when life was better (even if it wasn't, not for everyone), and this particular "share" is their gift to you.

The variety-show format has changed little over the years. This season, the balletic conductor David Charles Abell presides over the special brand of wholesome merriment. You have to admire a format that progresses from two movements of Britten's Ceremony of Carols for harp and boys performed in Middle English to a live Santa doing the hula to 1949's "Mele Kalikimaka" - with absolutely no trace of irony or inhibition.

Sincerity, in fact, is the lifeblood of this show. My favorite part of Saturday afternoon's performance was the appearance of the winner of that day's Christmas story contest. Out came one Carmela (Millie) Santore to be interviewed by Abell about being born on Christmas Day nearly 86 years ago. It was like some 1940s radio show - the crisp host asking questions of the Everywoman who might have been awed by a moment in the spotlight. Except that she turned the tables. Asked whether she liked her prize, a Christmas sweater presented by an elf, she didn't miss a beat. "I do," she said. "You do?" asked Abell. "I'm going to an ugly Christmas sweater party," she deadpanned, drawing the biggest audience laugh of the afternoon. Authenticity reigns.

Of course, any Christmas Spectacular worth its kosher salt requires big forces, and this one boasted 325 performers: the Philadelphia Boys Choir & Chorale in Hanukkah tunes, brave harpist Andre Tarantiles in the Britten, organist Peter Richard Conte for a wildly Wagnerian "Adeste Fideles," the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas Gospel Choir to raise the jubilation quotient to the point of shaking the agnostic from his cocoon (almost), and the Philly Pops Festival Chorus to blanket warmth around arrangements re-creating, for just a few minutes, what Christmas sounded like to a certain subset of mid-20th-century America. Retro-lush is a nice place to revisit, even if you weren't there to experience it the first time around.

Many now of course take their holiday narrative, bit by neurotic bit, in the solitary glow of a cellphone. But with Ken Darby's setting of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, an entire crowd in Verizon Hall gathered round colorful orchestrations and smart musical allusions to the text.

Singer Lisa Vroman popped in and out all afternoon, her clear sound bending toward Broadway or hushed spiritual with the repertoire. The encore was "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm," whose big-band arrangement was just the right parting embrace for an audience old enough to remember Billie or Ella doing it. The Pops, thoughtful as ever, sent revelers home cloaked in something prettier than a Christmas sweater. Considerably more durable, too.

Additional shows: Dec. 9, 12, 16, 18, 19, 20, and 22 at the Kimmel Center, Broad and Spruce Sts. Tickets: $32-$148. www.phillypops.com, 215-893-1999.