Frances Motyca Dawson swore she'd never be one of those conductors who programmed Handel's Messiah each year during the Christmas season.
But after leading her first Columbia Pro Cantare Messiah in 1984, the choir's founding conductor had a change of heart.
"You could have knocked me over with a feather," recalls Motyca Dawson, who will conduct Pro Cantare's 20th performance of George Frederick Handel's great and grand oratorio at Jim Rouse Theatre on Sunday. "It was like a conversion to a cause. I realized that most people, musicians included, find comfort in things that are familiar. And as we cram more and more into our lives, I find that this masterpiece we know so well still sets a sublime tone at the beginning of a frantic season."
Frantic also is a good word to describe the working style of the 56-year-old Handel, who crafted the full Messiah score in 24 days in 1741.
"I did think I did see all heaven before me and the great God himself," he is reputed to have said in the throes of one of the great creative rushes in music history.
The German composer had gone to London in 1712, quickly becoming the toast of Britain because of his mastery of the Italian operatic style.
But the late 1730s would mark a turning point in Handel's topsy-turvy life. Whether generated by spiritual longing, a nervous breakdown he suffered in 1737 or his always acute sense of what the public desired of him, Handel changed his artistic focus.
"Israel in Egypt" (1738) and "Saul" (1739) announced that Handel was now the master of a new medium: the scripturally based work for choir, vocal soloists and orchestra known as the oratorio.
Messiah, which received its world premiere in Dublin, Ireland, in spring 1742, represents something of the "old" and "new" Handel.
Its solos are operatic to a fault. Indeed, the soprano's "Rejoice Greatly" and "Why Do the Nations?" sung by the bass are among the most relentlessly florid arias to be found anywhere, on or off the operatic stage.
Along with the arias, though, the listener experiences one of the greatest choral festivals ever composed, with a succession of extraordinary choruses bursting at the seams with infectious rhythms, expert counterpoint and evocative tone painting.
"And the Glory of the Lord," "And He Shall Purify," "For Unto Us a Child Is Born," "Surely He Hath Borne Our Grief," the "Amen" and, of course, the majestic "Hallelujah" are just a few of the choral interludes that have become well-nigh synonymous with the spiritual realm and its expression in music.
"Every note and every word has color," says Motyca Dawson. "If you want to learn how to make the English language speak dramatically and operatically, you sing Messiah."
This year's Pro Cantare rendering of Part I, the so-called Christmas Portion, and healthy excerpts from Parts II and III, will include a new soloist, bass Alfred Walker from New York City's Metropolitan Opera.
Walker will be joined by soprano Amy Van Roekel, mezzo-soprano Rosa Maria Pascarella and tenor Charles Reid, another singer on the Met roster.
"We're performing our traditional version this year," says Motyca Dawson, "but even though it's the same piece, there's still much to be learned and enjoyed from performing it. Messiah is a benchmark for singers, a work to revisit and hear how we've changed in the past year.
"To Handel," said Beethoven, "I bow the knee."
In the 260 years since Messiah's premiere, the world has been genuflecting with him.
Columbia Pro Cantare is to present Part I and excerpts from Parts II and III of Handel's Messiah at Jim Rouse Theatre, 5460 Trumpeter Road in Columbia at 7:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $23 and $20, and may be ordered by calling 410-465-5744, 410-799-9321 or by contacting the group's Web site at www.cpcchorus.info. Pro Cantare's Chamber Chorus presents a Christmas program at 3 p.m. Dec. 14 at Christ Episcopal Church, 6800 Oakland Mills Road, Columbia. Tickets are $15 and $13.