Handel's

Messiah

is usually left to the specialists - conductors who can pull together a coherent echt-baroque performance in a single rehearsal with super-busy vocal soloists who often meet for the first time on stage.

But not this year. The Philadelphia Orchestra's annual Messiah, performed Friday through Sunday at the Kimmel Center, will be among the few to be conducted by its own music director. The piece, which sometimes seems like a holiday obligation, is being led by Yannick Nézet-Séguin with a blue-chip lineup of soloists and at least three times as much rehearsal as usual.

He has been wanting to do this since coming to Philadelphia.

"It's crucially important to me," he says. "I'm always listening to a complete Messiah over the holidays.

"Also, the music director of an orchestra should be present in every area. It's important to do touring, family concerts, and events that make a difference to the community, such as the Martin Luther King concert. Messiah is a moment of reflection for our community at large, and it's important to be a part of that."

Unlike most Messiah versions, this one is uncut and was meant to be semi-staged - something increasingly common among stage directors intrigued by the plethora of imagery in the text and the absence of any typical dramatization. Though about Jesus Christ, Messiah never asks the savior to sing (unlike Bach's St. Matthew Passion). However, the semi-staged presentation by Scottish director James Alexander must wait for future seasons, having been cut for budgetary reasons.

"The ideas are already there, and we just have to be ready to go - not next year necessarily," said Nézet-Séguin, "but I wouldn't be surprised if we do it in a couple years."

Though the orchestra received a Grammy Award nomination on Monday, and Nézet-Séguin will be honored Tuesday as artist of the year by Musical America at Carnegie Hall, he knows his world is hardly on Easy Street.

"It's a setback," he conceded, regarding the staging cancellation. "But I'm here in the long run . . . and it doesn't make me less interested in doing projects in Philadelphia. It's not like the conductor isn't getting his toy. I think it shows we have some work to do."

This year's soloists, though, are among the best participating in American Messiahs this season. Though Montreal soprano Karina Gauvin has sung Messiah in Philadelphia before, she has become a major international baroque-opera star, and, just back from engagements in Russia, will be making her subscription debut while also working with former conservatory chum Nézet-Séguin for the first time in years.

Mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill and tenor Andrew Staples are Nézet-Séguin regulars. Bass Matthew Rose is a Curtis Institute graduate and now a major presence in England. The wild card is countertenor Christophe Dumaux - an optional voice in Messiah, but one Handel sometimes used. He'll sing the more existential arias, such as "But who may abide the day of his coming."

Though conductors in decades past have made fairly heavy weather of Messiah - Eugene Ormandy's famous Philadelphia recording had the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Wagnerian soprano Eileen Farrell - Nézet-Séguin talks about wanting some choruses to be "fleet" and "floating." With a reduced-size instrumental contingent, "this is maybe the first time I've gone toward so much intimacy with the orchestra."

The piece itself is a touchstone on numerous fronts. For composer Handel, Messiah was a creative resurrection. After 30 years of operatic ups and downs, the composer had finished his last Italian-language opera, the wan Deidemia, at a time when the entire medium was in eclipse. Later that year (1741) came Messiah, with a text that challenged him to bring together recitatives, arias, and choruses in an emphatic narrative without any characters or plot. He did it in 24 days, sometimes recycling music from frothy cantatas he wrote as a young man. An instant hit, the piece also helped maintain Handel's reputation as a vocal composer over the 150 years that his operas weren't performed.

The demand for Messiah soloists is such that young singers often get their start with the piece, which can be a Christmas bonus for singers because so many engagements are available around the country. But with the rise of baroque opera, stars such as Gauvin find that other Handel gigs can crowd out Messiah. Though she sings plenty of other music (particularly French art song), she feels an almost mystical relationship with the composer who has given her so many great roles. She calls them "a gift beyond time." Yet Messiah hasn't lost its attraction. "It comes back to the essential things at Christmastime," said Gauvin. "I'm very humbled by it."

That devotion particularly extends to the often-cut soprano aria "If God be for us, who can be against us," which she'll sing here. It's No. 53 in the score, at the very end, and not the catchiest thing Handel ever wrote. "But it's very, very powerful and brings me to a place of great reflection," she says. "It gives me shivers just to talk about it."

Speaking of shiver-inducing music, how might Nézet-Séguin approach the Hallelujah Chorus (the single most-traveled territory in classical music)? Just stay out of its way.

"I used to start the Hallelujah Chorus piano" - softly - "and make a big crescendo, but I don't believe in doing that any more," he said. "The music is triumphant. It's D major. I mean this to be a few minutes of light and complete joy within a work that is more reflective. I am on an artistic journey to be as natural as possible."

MUSIC

Messiah

8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday

at Verizon Hall.

Tickets: $40-$167.

Information: www.philorch.org or 215-893-1999.EndText