With its seasonal message of spiritual joy, goodwill and solace, Handel’s Messiah remains the most inescapable of holiday choral offerings.

The music is likely resonant this year for conductor Bernard Labadie who is leading this week’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra performances of Handel’s oratorio, the work’s first subscription appearance in 11 years.

A year ago, the Canadian conductor canceled all his engagements due to serious illness which he has since identified as T-cell lymphoma. After a stem-cell transplant and harrowing convalescence, the cancer has apparently been eradicated and Labadie has returned to the podium active roster. He conducted Thursday night’s 160-minute performance with characteristic vitality and energy while seated, the only indication of his recent illness.

As always with this Baroque and Classical era specialist, Handel’s music was in fine hands. While observant of period performance manners–sparing vibrato, fleet tempos and transparent textures—Labadie brought verve and buoyant engagement to this music. The chamber-orchestra-size CSO was fully responsive, with Stephanie Jeong in the first chair leading lithe and energetic string playing, with an apt twangy period sound. Mark Schuldiner was the versatile keyboardist, aptly assured on organ and harpsichord.

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