Holiday programming can be box office gold for performing arts organizations, as any number of annual "Nutcracker" productions attest. 

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra hoped to mine the seasonal market profitably for years and years with its Holiday Spectacular, a handsomely staged and costumed show that was introduced in 2005 and memorably featured a chorus line of tap-dancing Santas.

That expensive venture, essentially a transplant of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's long-running, hugely successful Yuletide Celebration, started strong, but attendance gradually diminished (maybe Hoosiers have a bigger appetite for this sort of thing than Baltimoreans).


After 2010, the Spectacular was put on what the BSO officially termed a hiatus.

To take its place last year, the orchestra tried out a cirque program that often looked cheesy, thanks to some awful video projections, but delivered the expected oohs and aahs.

This year, the symphony decided on a more straightforward product called Holiday Pops Celebration, with the Baltimore Choral Arts Society and baritone Daniel Narducci (pictured below in red) joining the BSO. The wholesome result was unveiled Wednesday night at the Music Center at Strathmore before moving to Meyerhoff Symphony Hall for several performances through the weekend.

For the most part, the program ....

delivers the goods. Other than some colorful lighting, there is nothing fancy here (having a guy dressed as Santa stroll through the hall at one point only made one more nostalgic for the kickline in the Spectacular). The attention is on the music, which comes in short bursts and covers the usual bases -- traditional carols (some with audience participation), bits of Tchaikovsky and Leroy Anderson, holiday pop songs and movie scores.

Folks looking for a good, old-fashioned Christmas-y experience -- right down to "snowflakes" falling in the theater during the "White Christmas" encore -- should find that this one hits the spot.

Robert Bernhardt, the affable conductor (and unrepentant punster) who was at the helm for the 2011 holiday cirque, is back on the podium, maintaining smooth control. (He is pictured above.)

On Wednesday, he drew snappy playing from the BSO, especially during the in-one-ear-out-the-other, but richly orchestrated, suite from "The Polar Express."

The ensemble shone as well in a John Williams-esque version of "The Night Before Christmas" for narrator and orchestra arranged by Randol Alan Bass, who, as Bernhardt noted, makes it sound like Santa is meeting E.T.

There was real Williams on the bill, too -- vividly orchestrated, if not quite memorable, holiday songs from the composer's scores to the first two "Home Alone" movies (the brass surged mightily in "Star of Bethlehem").

The chorus, as usual, impressed with its disciplined articulation, balanced tone and supple phrasing all night. The singers even summoned a persuasive series of Macaulay Culkin fist pumps in one of the "Home Alone" items.

Fine choral efforts sparked "Christmas Time Is Here," one of the few contemporary additions to holiday fare that holds up well to repeated listening. Other highlights: Mack Wilberg's big, sweeping arrangement of "Joy to the World"; and Barlow Bradford's glistening treatment of "Carol of the Bells" (the Anacrusis Bell Choir chimed in vibrantly here).

Narducci's white-bread approach to "Go Tell It on the Mountain" didn't quite cut it, but his velvety vocal styling served him well elsewhere. He was at his most disarming in a gently phrased, genuinely nostalgic account of "Silver Bells." He also delivered the narration for "The Night Before Christmas" with considerable elan.