by Ann M. Colford & r & George Frideric Handel and his Messiah oratorio are like friends who you really only know superficially. Sure, everyone knows "Hallelujah" -- yes, it's just "Hallelujah," not "The Hallelujah Chorus" -- and selected arias and choruses like "The Glory of the Lord" and "He Shall Feed His Flock" find their way into concert programs, but the full two-plus hours of music written by Handel are rarely heard. Spokane's godfather of classical music, Gunther Schuller, has decided to change all that, though, with performances of nearly the entire oratorio this weekend by the Northwest Bach Festival Chorus and Orchestra at First Presbyterian Church.

Over the years at the Bach Festival, Schuller has brought dozens of pieces by Handel and his contemporaries to local audiences, including selections from Messiah, but he's never had the opportunity to devote a full concert to it.

"Gunther has wanted to do Messiah in Spokane for years," says Gertrude Harvey of Connoisseur Concerts, "but it doesn't fit into the Bach Festival because people think of it as a Christmas piece, right or wrong."

Indeed, the text -- taken from Christian scripture, both Old Testament and New -- recounts the biblical story from the prophecies of Christ's birth to the Nativity itself and then on to his death and resurrection. Handel created the oratorio in 1741 for presentation during Holy Week, just before Easter. Only the first section tells the Christmas story, and yet somehow the piece has become associated with the Christmas season.

During this particular Christmas season, however, orchestra members had a break in their schedule, says Harvey. "Because of the long run of The Lion King at the Opera House, the Symphony schedule is different, so we had a window," she explains. "We decided we could do it this year."

Schuller has a well-known passion for staying true to the music he directs. Harvey says he has planned nearly a week of rehearsals so he can work with the musicians and create the sound that he feels is called for.

"Gunther has done Messiah before, of course, but not for a long time. He is convinced that it's almost never done right, so he'll be doing the 'definitive Schuller version,'" she laughs. "Because he wants the musicians to read it differently, we're having four rehearsals. He doesn't want them to carry forward any previous notions of Messiah."

The 24-voice Bach Festival Chorus is made up of professional singers from the area, most of whom teach at area colleges or privately. Symphony players comprise the orchestra, which is of about the same size. The four soloists - Janet Brown, soprano; Barbara Rearick, mezzo-soprano; Rockland Osgood, tenor; and James Maddalena, bass - came to Spokane last winter for the 2005 Bach Festival, so this presentation of Messiah is like a happy reunion.

"These are gorgeous voices," Harvey says of the chorus. "They don't sing together all the time but they sound like they do. They come so well prepared that it's just amazing how quickly it comes together."

The concerts will run a couple of hours in length, which is almost but not quite enough time to complete the entire oratorio. The program will include all of Part One (the Christmas story) and portions of Parts Two and Three; all of the most familiar "greatest hits" are included.

"After getting into the music, Gunther really wanted to do the whole Messiah," says Harvey. "But we didn't want people to have an overly long concert experience, so we're keeping it under two hours."

Harvey is grateful that Spokane has a musical champion like Schuller. "He loves Spokane," she says. "He has said that he loves [the Spokane Symphony] because they make music for the right reasons and it shows. He's able to connect with people here."

In honor of Schuller's 80th birthday, celebrated Nov. 22, Harvey says the organizers are planning a little reception after each performance, so the community can greet Schuller and wish him well on his milestone.

"He's had lots of accolades," she says. "And he deserves them all."

Gunther Schuller directs Handel's Messiah with the Bach Festival Chorus and Orchestra and soloists on Friday-Saturday, Dec. 2-3, at 7:30 pm, at First Presbyterian Church, 318 S. Cedar St. Tickets: $25; $15, students. Call 325-SEAT. There is also a community Messiah singalong at First Pres on Sunday, Dec. 4, at 6 pm. (Rehearsals at 4 pm.)

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