Longtime Independence resident Carl Mesle sat in the audience of the Community of Christ Auditorium, watching a tradition that started nearly 100 years ago, when he was 2 years old.

Longtime Independence resident Carl Mesle sat in the audience of the Community of Christ Auditorium, watching a tradition that started nearly 100 years ago, when he was 2 years old.


“Beautiful tones,” Mesle whispers as the volunteer-based Independence Messiah Choir rehearsed on Tuesday night, just a week and a half away from its final planned performance at Community of Christ Auditorium. “Imagine composing all of those different parts together – what a tremendous job that was.”


This year marks the 94th annual live performance of Handel’s “Messiah” in Independence. Next year “Messiah” – performed now in coordination with the Kansas City Symphony and Chorus – will relocate to downtown Kansas City’s new Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts after more than 50 years at the same venue.


Mesle “air claps” his hands as the choir completes its rehearsal of one section.


At 96 years old, Mesle considers himself the choir’s “official cheerleader,” attending every weekly rehearsal. A former pastor at the Community of Christ Stone Church, Mesle did publicity for the Independence Messiah Choir for years, though he never sang with it.


Today, he looks up and sees his granddaughter Meg McCollister, an alto who is in her fourth year with the choir.


“I used to come all the time with him as a kid,” McCollister says. “It’s just sort of the pinnacle. I love it – it’s my favorite time of year.”


As a relative newcomer to the choir, one in which some have participated for decades, McCollister says she doesn’t consider the venue change the end of an era. Instead, she says, the tradition may live on.


“I haven’t seen the new space, but it seems like an honor to be asked to sing at the new performing arts center,” she says.


McCollister turns to her grandfather. “What do you think? Are you sad to see it go?”


“Yes,” Mesle says, “though I probably won’t make it down there next year. I’m 96, and I have to face facts that I might not have the energy.”


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At the request of her mother, Nola, Independence resident Sandra Allen started with the Independence Messiah Choir as a senior at William Chrisman High School.


“I really didn’t want to, but I did. I was so nervous, but I enjoyed it,” said Allen, a soprano who sat next to her mother in the choir. “I’m glad I did because she was an excellent singer, and I figured if I couldn’t get the very highest note, I could fake it.”


Allen is now in her 51st year with the choir, having missed only two years because of college and one year because of an illness. She started piano lessons at age 5 and still plays regularly for her church, adding that she grew up in a musically inclined family.


“Of course I was sad to hear that it wouldn’t be any more at the Auditorium because it’s such a marvelous building to sing in,” says Allen, who is aiming to participate again in 2011. “If the body holds up – the thing is that I’m terrible about getting over there to Kansas City, but somebody has already offered to carpool.”


Year after year, Allen says, she has enjoyed catching up with her choir friends who often drive a long distance to participate.


“Here, I live one mile away – I really have it good,” she says. 


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The one-night performance of “Messiah” has taken place every year since 1958 at the Auditorium, according to Peter Judd, the Independence Messiah Choir coordinator. Previous performances had taken place at Stone Church and with different radio and TV affiliates.


Five years ago, the tradition almost ceased because of declining ticket sales and Community of Christ budget constraints. Then, the Kansas City Symphony offered its assistance after learning of the choir’s closure.


“If you don’t keep raising the bar, the bar lowers. For us, after 94 years, we keep raising the bar,” says Eileen Terril, who has shared the coordinator role on and off again with Judd throughout the past 25 years. “I think it’s really an honor, and it’s a compliment to us that as the symphony is trying to raise its own bar, they’re taking the Independence Messiah Choir with them to the performing arts center.”


Because of the reduced number of seats in Helzberg Hall – one of two performance venues at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts – in comparison to the Auditorium, three “Messiah” performances will take place throughout the first weekend in December 2011.


“In recent years, it’s hard to sell out 5,000 seats, but I think last year, we had around 4,000 people,” Judd says. “If people have not had the opportunity to be a part of that, at least recently, this would be the year to come.”