Though the past week has been taken up with myriad performances commemorating the 300th birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach, the Handel Festival Orchestra and Chorus spent Sunday night paying homage to its tricentennial hero, George Frideric Handel. Under the knowledgeable and effusive baton of music director Stephen Simon, one of this country's preeminent Handelian champions, the ensemble's performance of the composer's "Occasional Oratorio" at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall -- the first ever in the United States -- was a luminous and bracing experience.

The lengthy, three-part oratorio is somewhat of a musical oddity -- sort of a "Handel's Greatest Hits" made up of new material, outtakes and excerpts from earlier works, and borrowings from other composers. Handel's hurried, patchwork approach to the piece was both financially and politically motivated; the Oratorio was planned specifically to bolster the patriotic fervor of a London shaken by the Stuarts' attempt to wrest the crown from George II. The oratorio, written during the winter of 1745-46, served its purposes successfully but has been regarded by some as a lesser, tainted work.

Listening to Simon and company's performance of this alternately moving and bombastic piece, one could only regard it in positive terms. The orchestra played splendidly, with great focus and eloquence. The chorus, trained by Norman Scribner, was impressive in its strength, clarity and blend. As for the soloists, there could hardly be three more different vocal types, but this accounted for an extra layer of aural pleasure. Bass John Macurdy produces an immensely rich and powerful sound, absolutely riveting in its force but rather muddy in its articulation. Soprano Lorna Haywood's strong suit is her impeccable pronunciation, not to mention her amazing control and agility. And when tenor John Stewart sends forth his silken tones, one revels not only in his technical gifts but in his abilty to tell stories though songs.