THE PHILLY POPS isn't exaggerating when it calls its nine holiday concerts a Christmas Spectacular. The 65-piece POPS, plus Broadway star Lisa Vroman, organist Peter Richard Conte, the 167-piece POPS Festival Chorus, the 50-member Philadelphia Boys Choir and 40-voice African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas Gospel Choir will pack the Kimmel Center stage.

These 300-plus performers will be led for the third year by busy London-based conductor David Charles Abell. Scheduled bonus acts include Miss America Betty Cantrell, performing on Dec. 9. Musicians from the POPS will also play for tenor Andrea Bocelli, who will bring his own conductor, on Dec. 12 at the Wells Fargo Center.

Abell spent his early years in Philadelphia, at Germantown Friends School. After singing in the boychoir at the premiere of Leonard Bernstein's Mass - the inaugural show in 1971 at Washington's Kennedy Center - he studied with Lenny and made his conducting debut with the complex work in Berlin at age 23.

Since then, Abell has become acclaimed around the world for his performances of Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, "Les Miserables," "Porgy and Bess" and a long list of both operas and Broadway classics. Recently, he's been conducting Rossini's "Cinderella" in Germany, returning to the UK on weekends to lead Cole Porter's "Kiss Me, Kate" on a northern England tour.

Just after he arrived in Philly from London, the youthful, exuberant conductor took time to speak with Daily News arts writer Tom Di Nardo about the allure of the POPS gig.

Q What's special about the Philly POPS style?

They know how to swing! The rhythm section and brass is the core of the orchestra, but the strings and brass can swing too. It's the tradition of jazz here, because American musicians can do all styles: classical, sacred, liturgical, 1980s pop, everything.

Q With all the opportunities available to you now, what's the attraction to this show?

I love the variety of a career and never aspired to be a specialist. It's more fun to be an all-around guy.

My mentor at Yale, John Mauceri, did operas, film music, the Hollywood Bowl and showed me not to limit myself. You have to be able to do rock, swing, big choruses, organ music - every possible challenge - and make it fun for people.

Q When did you begin selecting from the huge holiday catalog?

As soon as last year's show was over, because the choruses begin rehearsing in September! The task is to spotlight everyone, in combinations.

Lisa Vroman will sing a Sandi Patty song with the gospel choir backing like the Supremes, there's a Hanukkah song, the swing band will play with five saxes without the strings, the boychoir will sing with orchestra.

It's a matter of shaping a show, being a good accompanist and finding the best possible orchestrations. There's no training for this practical knowledge at Juilliard. It's a world unto itself.

Q What do you remember from your Philadelphia youth?

At Grace Church in Mount Airy, the choirmaster was a real taskmaster, turning my gravelly voice at age 8 into a boy soprano. At Germantown Friends I played trumpet, then viola in the orchestra. Even then, listening to the radio, hearing the Beatles, the Stones, Sly and Gary Puckett, I found the diversity of music fascinating.

Q What usually surprises the audiences?

The St. Thomas Gospel Choir, from Lancaster Avenue, which has a strong tradition. The women can belt way up, the men are all tenors, and they communicate their spirit in song - hard-driving and intense gospel music. They inspire me, and play the end of the concert.

Q What was it like to work with Leonard Bernstein?

I was just a kid, and he trusted me to help correct the mistakes in the orchestral parts of "West Side Story" and "Candide."

Q How do you involve the audiences?

Well, I make them sing, and most enjoy it. I try to make them laugh, even though my jokes aren't always funny.

For many, this is the highlight of their Christmas season. To give them real quality that's fun and touching is a highly emotional experience for me.

Philly POPS Christmas Spectacular, Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center through Dec. 22, $36-$148, 215-893-1999, kimmelcenter.org.