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Southern Nevada Musical Arts Society takes a victory lap

To hear Smith Center emissaries tell it, culture in Las Vegas was all but nonexistent prior to a year ago, when a massive concert-hall complex was bestowed upon our fair city. What, then, are we to make of the Southern Nevada Musical Arts Society, which marks its 50th anniversary this weekend?

Director Douglas Peterson has paid witness to 45 years of that history, having arrived in Las Vegas to join the faculty of what was then Nevada Southern University (now UNLV). The following year, he became the ensemble’s musical director, a position he has held since. This staggering tenure has led local historian Brian Paco Alvarez to dub Peterson a “live history book.”

Unfortunately, in a media climate where there’s scant classical music coverage and most of it flows toward the Philharmonic, the SNMAS finds it a struggle to be heard. Not that it’s stopping the group from celebrating a half-century of choral-orchestral music this Sunday. Anchoring the first half is Franz Josef Haydn’s “Lord Nelson” Mass, a mainstay of the Society’s history. Coloratura soprano Amy Cofield Williamson returns after intermission to perform a high-flying “Alleluia” by Mozart — and then we take an enormous leap from Classical-era Vienna to pre-20th century America, with a group of spirituals arranged by John Rutter.

Other mammoth masterworks undertaken by the SNMAS during its half-century existence range from J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion to Ralph Vaughn Williams’ Sea Symphony. Sunday’s soloists include bass-baritone Neil Wilson, making his 28th appearance with the ensemble at the tender age of 83.

Not resting on its laurels, the Society has another Andrea Bocelli gig at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on Dec. 7 and hits Carnegie Hall next April 8 with Carol Barnett’s Bluegrass Mass, heard a year ago at CSN. “This work has been around for years, and so it’s taken on a life of its own,” Peterson says.

“We cover the waterfront, in terms of taste,” avows Peterson, who retired from UNLV in 2003. “We give something for everybody” — like David Fanshawe’s once-faddish, now forgotten African Sanctus. Donors and the Nevada Arts Council support help pay the bills. “We are survivors,” insists the venerable music director. “Trust me.”

SOUTHERN NEVADA MUSICAL ARTS SOCIETY Sunday, April 28, 3 p.m; Artemus W. Ham Hall at UNLV, 895-2787, $8-$18.