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Until 15 years ago Preston Neilson had never heard a live concert performance of Handel's "Messiah."

"I'd heard a lot about it and had listened to it on tape," the third-generation Blanding rancher explains. But it wasn't until this small southeastern Utah community launched what has since become an annual event that he got to hear the beloved oratorio in the flesh. Or stand during the "Hallelujah" chorus."That really caught me off guard the first time," the 53-year-old Neilson says of the tradition that is supposed to have begun with King George II in 1743. But, with few exceptions, he and his family have been there every year since, as has the conductor of that first Blanding "Messiah," Peter Henderson.

"I had a 20-voice singing group in the community called the Canyonlanders," Henderson recalls. A transplanted New Zealander, he had first come to this country in 1957, at age 26, to study music education at Brigham Young University. A decade later he returned for graduate study and that led to appointments as principal of, first, San Juan County's Montezuma Creek Elementary School, then Blanding Elementary School.

"Until then I had just been involved in musical activities in the community as kind of a hobby," he recalls. "Then in 1980, along with the Canyonlanders, we decided we would sponsor `Messiah,' to my knowledge something that had never been done here before."

That first performance took place in the San Juan High School auditorium and, as Henderson remembers it, "we had around 30 in the orchestra, most of them from Snow College, and almost 200 in the chorus."

In those early days, he says, the work was still new enough to the performers, and the audience, that "the first couple of years we never got as far as the `Amen' chorus - we finished with `Hallelujah.' You must understand, rehearsals were held once a week at most and we never did get a full complement of singers."

Still, there were times Henderson remembers the chorus being larger than the audience. Within three years, however, the performance had moved from the high school to the LDS stake center "and we were into the whole thing by then."

Subsequent changes in sponsorship led to directorship changes - for two years Henderson did not conduct the work. Then, after funding evaporated in 1987, he found new sponsorship and picked things up without a break. Thus he will be on the podium once again for the 15th annual presentation, to take place Sunday, Dec. 11, at 7 p.m. at the Blanding LDS Stake Center, 800 North and 100 West. And, as it has been for more than a decade, admission is free.

With more than 500 in the audience and another 100 onstage, Henderson estimates current participation at around one-third the adult population of Blanding, though some in both groups come from as far away as Monticello or Moab.

"Our people have come to regard it as a vital part of the Christmas season," he says, adding that "places like Price or Ephraim, they have the advantage of a college music department as a nucleus and invite the community to assist them. Here there's nothing. We just beat the bushes and find people."

He remembers how, between the weather and finals, those 30-odd Snow College musicians the first year dwindled to eight in subsequent years, "and sometimes they just didn't make it at all. That got me to thinking we had to do this on our own. We had to find instrumentalists in our communities, so we would not be dependent on anybody else."

Chorus members still remember the time Henderson had to import an organist from Colorado. But most years, according to Monticello Elementary School principal Tim Taylor, who sings in the tenor section, "it's quite polished, from the timpani through the strings. I think any person who came to hear `Messiah' would be impressed and enjoy it, because it's pretty high quality."

That's what happened to City Council member Mary Lou Mueller, who had sung in "Messiah" performances all over the country before coming to Blanding seven years ago.

"To me the `Messiah' is Christmas," she declares, recalling the many times she heard her mother sing the work with the Oratorio Society of Utah. "I think it is a real privilege to be able to sing the music of Handel. I really feel his music was inspired and that, by taking his text from the scriptures, he has captured the meaning of the traditional Christmas story in a language all can understand."

For that reason she herself has taken part in performances wherever she happened to be living, including Washington, Kansas City, San Antonio and Denver. "But with only 3,500 people, I didn't expect to find a `Messiah' in this community. So I was very pleasantly surprised."

Not that it hasn't been a struggle at times. She, too, remembers the year the weather was so bad the Snow College string players couldn't make it. "So we went ahead with just a handful of local talent, and it was still beautiful."

Another longtime attendee, and fan, is K.C. Benedict, librarian at the College of Eastern Utah's San Juan Center. She especially remembers the 1989 performance, because it was the last for her husband Dean, who, though terminally ill with cancer, came in a wheelchair.

"He had sung in it the year before," she recalls, "and it was his intention to sing from the audience the night we brought him. He died the following Saturday."

Benedict says she'll be there again this year, and not just to carry on the family tradition. "I see it as a drawing together of the community, giving it a unity I don't see in any other event."

Henderson, for his part, says that's intentional.

"Even though the two LDS stakes sponsor it, we try to involve people of all faiths, and not just Christians. We also try very hard to involve the youth. I would guess that maybe 25 percent of the performers are teenagers."

For several years one of those was Taylor's daughter Julie, who played violin in the orchestra. She went on to be named Sterling Scholar in Music for southeastern Utah and currently plays in the Snow College string orchestra. "I think it helped her be successful there," Taylor comments.

This year, he estimates, 30 or 40 carloads of people will be making the trip from Monticello to hear the Dec. 11 performance. Mueller says "Messiah" fever builds early in Blanding, too. "People are always coming to me to ask when it is," she says. "You can feel their excitement."

That doesn't surprise Henderson. "If you were to hear this group, I think you'd be absolutely overcome with enthusiasm," he says. "For the most part, they may not be trained musicians, but you won't find anywhere on earth, I think, a group that loves this music more intently and exhibits more enthusiasm, energy and vitality."

"Without Peter, there would be no `Messiah,' " Mueller counters. "He has the ability to draw from us the best we have. It still amazes me that every year I get a personal phone call from him inviting me to sing. Then he says, `Will you call your mother and maybe one other person and help get the word out?' "

The result, she says, is that "I've never felt the dedication to make it excellent in any community like I do here. This is the best choir I've ever sung in."

"It's never easy," Henderson acknowledges, remembering the night he came home from rehearsal to find his water pipes had frozen. "But people do come through in the end. I don't know. Sometimes as November approaches I think, `I don't know if I've got the energy again,' but it always comes together as a wonderful experience and I feel we've done something very right."