Peter Nero's

Holiday Pops

is worth the price of admission if only for the hats - an unexpected bonus at the Kimmel Center and only the most tangible reason why the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas Gospel Choir was such a welcome presence at Saturday's first performance in a run of nine concerts through Dec. 20.

Even though the choir was in the far rear of the Verizon Hall stage, the church hats were a marvel, coming in expansive baroque shapes and sizes, as well as in hot pink and chartreuse. Binoculars weren't even needed. And when the women wearing the hats started singing "When All of God's Children Get Together," you knew why the choir was saved for the concert's final half hour. The only thing that could follow performances with that much heat - it's fun watching Nero conduct a musical force that's basically unconductable - was Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus," in which the gospel choir was joined by the Pops Festival Chorus and Philadelphia Boys Choir.

And if that doesn't put you in the Christmas spirit . . .

For all the success of the Peter Nero and the Philly Pops holiday concerts, they're tricky to program, and Nero artfully avoided both excessive sentimentality and an overfamiliarity that asks why you're paying to hear music that's being piped into most public places.

Of course, any Christmas pops concert is obliged to have any number of old favorites. But Nero's orchestrations (often by Jeffrey Smith) are both sonically rich and full of irregularities. The fact that Nero is fundamentally a jazz musician accounts for how he welcomes synocopation in unlikely places. The orchestrations also have mildly attenuated endings that derail unwelcome hum-alongs while also giving a sense of "value added."

And this version of the Christmas pops definitely has a sense of value, starting with a magnitude of the live sound that couldn't be matched by any Muzak system. Nero promised "285 performers for the price of 250." No kidding. Besides the chorus, designated sing-alongs upped the performer count. At the Kimmel organ, Peter Conte was suitably imposing. "Sleigh Ride" had more-than-usual brass-rendered horse whinnies.

Much of the program's strength came from its willingness to touch different bases, such as a medley of Hanukkah songs. The featured soloist was Broadway performer Lauren Kennedy, who was at her considerable best in the still-racy Eartha Kitt classic "Santa Baby." At the piano, Nero improvised on "White Christmas."

Also, this is one time of the year when Nero doesn't play that tired Pink Panther theme. That's cause for abundant Christmas gratitude.

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

Music Review

Peter Nero and the Philly Pops

Through Dec. 20, at the Kimmel Center, Broad and Spruce. Tickets $27-$104. 215-893-1900, www.phillypops.org.