FARMINGTON — The San Juan College Music Department brought two astounding performances of George Frideric Handel's "Messiah" to the Henderson Fine Arts Center Performance Hall for its annual Masterworks Concert.

The performances could not have come at a better time.

"Messiah," is not only Handel's most famous composition. It stands alone in the cannon of Western classical music.

The genius of Handel's piece is that its message is accessible and applicable to anyone regardless of time, place or religiosity.

The piece captures the composer's ferocity, his independence and his genius.

It is uplifting and engages in a dialogue with itself and the audience. The orchestral sections are followed by a statement from the soloists while the grand choral sections drive home messages.

The San Juan College performances captured the piece's Biblical grandeur, and the delicate balance between choir and orchestra and soloist to weave a truly compelling musical narrative.

But in order to understand "Messiah," one must understand the context in which it was written.

Handel was born in Germany, but rose to immense fame in London, England in the early 1700s. At that time, the city's emerging merchant and professional classes broke the arts patronage system dominated by the nobility in much of Europe, freeing musicians and other artists to work independently.

London's musical scene was dominated by two camps. The first worshiped the traditional Italian opera, idolized composer Giovanni Bonocini (1670-1747). The second flocked to Handel's new Italian operas.

By the 1730s, a new, English language operatic form, a "folk opera" of sorts, came to dominate popular taste, and Handel reinvented himself.

The composer began to concentrate on sacred oratorios, which featured many of opera's musical features without the elaborate sets.

"Messiah," is one of the oratorios. The piece is divided into three sections. The first focuses on the prophesy and birth of Jesus Christ and is often called the "Christmas section."

San Juan College's music department presented this section, as well as the "Hallelujah Chorus," from the Easter section, which focuses on Christs' Passion and the Crucifixion.

The Christmas section comprises five scenes that describe Isaiah's prophecy of salvation, the coming judgment, the prophecy of Christ's birth, the annunciation to the shepherds and Christ's healing and redemption. That story of salvation, redemption and rebirth filled the performance hall Friday evening and Saturday afternoon, and was the perfect prelude to Christmas, now just nine days away.