In a city where tradition still counts for a lot, it's worth taking an extra look at the Handel Choir of Baltimore. This weekend marks its 75th annual performance of "Messiah," the most famous oratorio by the ensemble's namesake.

In 1935, there probably wasn't a great deal of competition at holiday time for the choir. "This year, there is a landslide of 'Messiahs,' " says Melinda O'Neal, the choir's artistic director and conductor.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra alone is responsible for three versions - last week's annual complete performance of the work, a gospel version this weekend, and a mix of the two for a community singalong on Wednesday. But the Handel Choir's "Messiah" offers features that should keep it from being lost in the crowd.

"What distinguishes us is a period instrument orchestra and high-quality, glamorous soloists," O'Neal says.

The opportunity to experience "Messiah" with the kind of instruments Handel would have heard is a major selling point, as is the strong caliber of East Coast players the Handel Choir utilizes. O'Neal introduced the period orchestra element when she took the choir's helm in 2004.

"Messiah" will not be given note-complete (one reason is O'Neal's concern for the audience's "fanny fatigue" from church pews), but "a big chunk" of Parts I and II and all of III will be included.

"Messiah" will be performed at 8 p.m. Saturday at St. Ignatius Church, 740 N. Calvert St., and 4 p.m. Sunday at Church of the Redeemer, 5603 N. Charles St. For tickets, call 410-366-6544 or go to handelchoir.org.

Shakespeare Festival season

The Baltimore Shakespeare Festival has announced an eventful 2009-2010 season that includes a rare double dose of plays running in repertory during the annual outdoor presentation in the Meadow on the grounds of the Evergreen Museum: Shakespeare's "The Comedy of Errors" and Moliere's "Scapin" (June 23 to Aug. 1).

"This will be exciting, and a challenge," says artistic director Michael Carleton. "It will provide a contrast between how Shakespeare did farcical comedy and what Moliere did a hundred years later with a different take on the same thing."

Up first this season will be Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure" (Feb. 12-21 at St. Mary's, 3900 Roland Ave.), part of the company's Teen Performance Program. "It's a challenge of a play even when adults do it," Carleton says. "It will be performed by high school students, but it will be treated like a professional production."

Tom Ziegler's play "Mrs. Kemble's Tempest," in its Baltimore premiere, will introduce audiences to the story of 19th-century Shakespearean actress and abolitionist Fanny Kemble (March 4-28 at St. Mary's).

The season also includes a reprise of last summer's "Hamlet" production (April 12-23 at St. Mary's), and a continuation of an inventive series that offers readings of plays about artists whose paintings hang in the Evergreen Museum. "The Secret of Mme. Bonnard's Bath" by Israel Horovitz will be read by John Astin at Evergreen (February dates to be announced).

Kicking off the season is a dose of good holiday cheer - a reading of what is billed as "William Shakespeare's 'A Christmas Carol,' " Dec. 18 at St. Mary's. "We're calling it a long-lost script, Shakespeare's version of the story before Dickens got ahold of it," Carleton says. "It's very funny if you're into either Shakespeare or Dickens."

Admission is free. "It's Christmas and we want to give a gift," Carleton says.

For more information, call 410-366-8696 or go to baltimoreshakespeare.org.

Weekend concert reviews

For reviews of classical guitarist Jason Vieaux and the Juilliard String Quartet, please go to baltimoresun.com/clefnotes.

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