A giant styrofoam snowflake hangs above the Symphony Hall stage; Holiday Pops has returned for the season.
Founded with a handful of concerts led by Arthur Fiedler three decades ago, Holiday Pops has become an institution. Even though some post-Christmas matinee performances have been canceled this year because of poor advance sales, more than 30 concerts remain on the schedule. The hall looked full on opening night, and many in the crowd were festively dressed, including conductor Keith Lockhart, who contrasted his Prada tux with a blazing red open-necked shirt. The revelers and carolers in the hall included Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
Like that snowflake, Holiday Pops are impressive, seasonal, and synthetic. There has been an uneasy balance between spirituality and commerce in these programs; last night Handel's ''Hallelujah" Chorus was sung in Mozart's arrangement and played in a jazzy version by arranger Don Sebesky.
This year the balance was decisively tilted toward commerce because of the release of the Pops' first self-produced album, ''Sleigh Ride." Much of the concert reproduced the album's content and the evening was presented as a marketing opportunity. Lockhart pitched the album, and so did Santa Claus when he arrived, comparing the album to hula-hoops and ''Tickle Me Elmo" as a seasonal must.
That weighed the evening down, and so, alas, did the evening's world premiere, a new version of Dickens's ''A Christmas Carol" for narrator, chorus, and orchestra by Sebesky. It takes actress Miriam Margolyes about three hours to get through the best audiobook reading of the tale, savoring every verbal plum. This version lasted about half an hour, too long for a concert, but too short to give the full flavor of Dickens's language and story. Sebesky's score is an expert collage of familiar Christmas melodies, period reels and dances, and sound effects (a storm, clanking chains, etc.), but some of it sets up a pretty loud sound barrier even to an amplified narrator. Will LeBow looked impressive in a Victorian frock coat and worked hard; found a good, cracked voice for Ebenezer Scrooge; and toward the end managed some effective gestures. Still, this is not really a task for an actor with an American accent; he might have fared better if he, and not the music, were dictating the tempo of the narration. Pops management didn't stint: original illustrations by John Leech and other early illustrations were projected on the side walls.
Members of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus had a workout. The electronic ''enhancement" of their efforts was not always convincing, and removed too much dynamic contrast; they sounded so loud at the opening of ''Hallelujah" there was no further place for them to go. After the finesse of some of the Boston Symphony Orchestra's playing under James Levine, some of this program sounded coarse, unbalanced, and overarranged, but Lockhart certainly kept the energy level up, and he's a good sport. There was some nifty solo playing from saxophonist Michael Monaghan, and concertmaster Tamara Smirnova reprised her famously sumptuous solo in ''White Christmas." Carolyn Ranti, the daughter of BSO bassoonist Richard Ranti and oboist Laura Ahlbeck, was very touching in ''I Wonder As I Wander" in Patrick Hollenbeck's arrangement of ''Songs From the Hill Folk" -- her young voice was sweet, true, and steady on sustained notes, and her expression was pure.
It was nice to hear Harry Simeone's choral version of '' 'Twas the Night Before Christmas" popularized by Fred Waring, and the audience chimed into ''Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" to lead off the holiday sing-along. Holiday Pops may be one of the last refuges of innocent merriment -- Santa Claus's gift to Lockhart was a pair of red socks, which drew a roar of approval from the crowd. Toward the end of the program Lockhart was really speeding along and accelerating beyond that in the encores. Perhaps the Ghost of Pops Overtime was rattling his chains.