Hallelujah to Handel’s ‘Messiah’

Close to three centuries old and performed umpteen times — everywhere, mostly around Christmas — Handel’s “Messiah” remains the most beloved oratorio around the world. Why?

First, because it’s thoroughly lovable — a work of sumptuous melodies, soaring choral numbers, shimmering orchestral passages. Second, because it is a masterpiece of depth, endlessly repeatable and still yielding new joys and treasures.

“It is grand, beautiful music,” says Ragnar Bohlin, the San Francisco Symphony’s new choral director, who conducts its performances Wednesday through Friday. The Swedish maestro quotes Handel about composing the work: “I did think I did see all heaven before me, and the great God himself.”

Contemporaries report hearing Handel weep aloud while composing the music describing Christ’s life and death, the oratorio completed in the white heat of inspiration during 24 days and nights of work.

During the composer’s lifetime (1685-1759) and ever since, “Messiah” underwent many changes. One set of variations comes from Handel’s own performances, between 1742 and 1759, the other from the so-called synthetic approach, building the work from its component parts. Most contemporary conductors, including Bohlin, opt for the latter.

And yet, while not following the order of one of Handel’s own performances, Bohlin resists the “temptation to give ‘Messiah’ a new twist, to make it different for the sake of being different.” He intends to honor the oratorio’s “dramatic, varied structure.”

Bohlin is in excellent company for the “Messiah” performances as the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus are joined by such noted soloists as soprano Camilla Tilling, mezzo Tove Dahlberg, tenor Shawn Mathey and bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi.

Bohlin, who had previously visited The City on a Swedish-American Foundation travel grant to all major American symphony choruses, returned when the position became available and pretty much aced the audition.

Messiah

Presented by: San Francisco Symphony

Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco

When: 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday

Tickets: $20 to $82

Contact: (415) 864-6000 or at sfsymphony.org

Note: The program will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Flint Center in Cupertino.

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