SAN FRANCISCO -- Beneath the vaulted arches of Grace Cathedral, Handel's "Messiah" surged and stormed. Onward! This was Thursday night, and the American Bach Soloists were performing the famous Baroque oratorio, a staple of the Christmas season, in what definitely is the Bay Area's coolest setting for hearing it.

And this listener -- like many around him at the sold-out performance -- kept looking up: at nearly 20 miles of illuminated ribbon, glistening and streaming down from those towering arches. You don't typically get a light show at performances of "Messiah," yet every performance is different. Anyone can discover that in the coming days, when "Messiah" is interpreted by orchestras and choruses in San Francisco, Berkeley and San Jose. (The South Bay version will really be different; it's a jazzed up and gospelized arrangement called "Too Hot to Handel," popularized over the last 20 years by conductor Marin Alsop.)

The oratorio's liturgical story line is both earthbound and cosmic: the coming of Christ, the resurrection, the ascension. Staring upward at those fluttering spot-lit ribbons during Thursday's performance, this listener suddenly heard the chorus sing "upon them hath the light shined." Surprise! Handel's word-painting was instantly enhanced by artist Anne Patterson's multicolored installation, which celebrates 100 years of music-making at the cathedral.

You didn't need the lights to appreciate the performance, however. For one thing, there are all those hit tunes: "Comfort ye, comfort ye my People," "The Trumpet shall sound," "He was despised and rejected of Men, a Man of Sorrows."

Heavy titles, great melodies.

Layer in the propulsion that grows when an orchestra is leaping on the rhythmic cells that line up bead-like through Handel's phrases; the period-instrument orchestra did this through much of Thursday's performance. Concertmaster Elizabeth Blumenstock -- whose violin was crafted by Andrea Guarneri in Cremona, Italy, in 1660 -- was the power generator.

Conducted by Jeffrey Thomas, the American Bach Soloists perform "Messiah" each year at Grace, a widely anticipated event on the Christmas cultural calendar. (Thursday's show was the second of two performances.) I've seen Thomas lead some heroic "Messiahs" at Grace over the years. This one was uneven, up and down in its impact.

When setting his tempos at a brisk clip, Thomas achieved some masterful effects: a great blending within the chorus, an infectious buoyancy through the ranks of the orchestra -- an overall sense of surging and shivering wintry-ness, especially during Handel's many fugues. At these moments, one could practically feel the earth, the elements, as well as the spiritual drama described by the composer.

But many of Handel's airs verge on balladry, and Thomas kept insisting on an exaggerated stateliness that caused problems. His tempos were often just too slow; here the performance lost traction and dragged, bringing to mind a wind-up toy that's running out of juice and needs a cranking.

Never fear. Each of the four soloists had shining moments.

Soprano Shawnette Sulker displayed her warm coloratura through "Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Sion." (At other points, she didn't seem in full voice; she kept a shawl wrapped tightly around her neck and shoulders when not singing.) Countertenor Eric Jurenas plunged into "Man of Sorrows," which became a billowing lamentation. Baritone Mischa Bouvier's rich timbres were a treat throughout "The Trumpet shall sound."

Best was tenor Aaron Sheehan, consistently melodious and agile, singing with clarity and great feeling. He kept raising the temperature of the performance, as on "Thou shalt break them with a Rod of Iron," setting the stage for the congregational call to attention, the "Hallelujah" chorus.

Contact Richard Scheinin at 408-920-5069, read his stories and reviews at www.mercurynews.com/richard-scheinin and follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/richardscheinin.

Handel's "Messiah"
South Bay performance: 7 p.m. Saturday; Symphony Silicon Valley Chorale and members of Symphony Silicon Valley (Elena Sharkova, conductor) perform "Too Hot to Handel," a jazz-gospel arrangement of "Messiah"; California Theatre, San Jose; $26-$36; 408-286-2600 extension 23, www.symphonysiliconvalley.org.
East Bay: 8 p.m. Saturday ; Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale (Nicholas McGegan, conductor) perform Handel's score; Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley; $30-$75; 510-642-9988 www.calperformances.org.
San Francisco: 8 p.m. Thursday through Dec. 21; San Francisco Symphony and Chorus (Ragnar Bohlin, conductor) perform Handel's score; Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco; $15-$156; 415-864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org