The National Symphony Orchestra's performances of Handel's "Messiah" play to packed houses every year. The four presentations at the Kennedy Center leading up to Christmas Eve climax a month of festive events to mark the holiday season. Guest conductor Rolf Beck, the chorus master and conductor of the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra Choir for more than 20 years, specializes in the great oratorios and sacred choral works. For the fifth time, the University of Maryland Concert Choir, directed by Edward Maclary, will join the NSO and guest soloists.

"We first sang the 'Messiah' at the Kennedy Center in 2003," Maclary said. "Along with the 32 members of our Chamber Singers, I'm bringing a total of 50 singers made up of students and alumni. Most of those currently in the program are music majors, although we do have a few economists and scientists who take the course for credit simply for their love of singing.

"During the first part of the semester, we prepared a very difficult program of 20th-century French works for a cappella choir. Since presenting that concert in November, we've worked on the 'Messiah' full-time right through the exam period. Monday's rehearsal at school with a piano and the conductor for the first time was followed by rehearsals with the orchestra and soloists at the Kennedy Center on Tuesday and Wednesday. Needless to say, the singers are prepared to do their best."

Few works touch musicians and audiences more than this grand oratorio that Handel composed in 1741. He set it to a text by Charles Jennens from the King James Bible and Psalms in the Book of Common Prayer. The first performance in Dublin in 1742 and the London premiere a year later were well received, but they did not foretell the enormous productions the work would receive in the future.

Handel's 'Messiah'
Where: Kennedy Center Concert Hall, 2700 F St. NW
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 1 p.m. Sunday
Info: $10 to $85; 202-467-4600; 800-444-1324;

"For the students, this opportunity allows them to perform with a world-class orchestra and world-class soloists in a world-class venue," Maclary said. "Two years ago, they performed Bach's Mass in B minor with Ivan Fischer and the NSO. This spring, they will sing the Mozart 'Requiem' with the NSO and Maestro Eschenbach. They're looking forward to that with great excitement after experiencing the master class he did with them on Bruckner and Mahler. It's an outstanding group of singers. In 2011, they received first prize as the top choir singing Renaissance music at the Florilege Vocal de Tours in France.

"Singing the 'Messiah' is for them and everyone involved an opportunity to renew and refresh. This is the most inspired music Handel wrote. It is appropriate for the season, and people never tire of it because it revives them psychologically and spiritually. For many, attending a performance of the 'Messiah' is an act of worship."