Last night's "Messiah" at the Concert Hall was not awful. Then again, it was not wonderful either. It did not differ much from the many that will materialize in various churches in the next few weeks. But this was the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center, and one really expected better.

If two things were worth the trip, they were Robert Shafer's Oratorio Society of Washington and Anthony Rolfe Johnson's gorgeous tenor voice, a stylish Handelian whose style was forceful yet never forced. Bass Michael Rippon was not at his best but displayed impressive coloratura as the evening grew. I have never heard a duller version of the aria "He was despised" than that of mezzo Lorna Myers, despite the parade of variously thin voices she could summon on a single phrase. Soprano Barbara Pearson was often sweet but nothing more.

The orchestral sounds were remarkable, as the NSO's reduced forces gained transparency and profile. The first chair strings were ravishing, as was the valiant trumpet in the "Hallelujah" chorus. But the beauty of the players was kept from blooming by the heavy-footed predictability of Margaret Hillis' conducting. Perhaps Handel's "Messiah," like Puccini's "La Boheme," is so certain to sell a house that little care is taken in casting it. But it would be so nice for once to hear the great "Messiah" that this orchestra could create.