The 75th anniversary edition of Handel's "Messiah" by the Oratorio Society of Utah proved sufficient to lure Crawford Gates back to Utah. Accordingly, the nationally noted conductor/composer with many Utah ties will be on the podium in the Tabernacle this Saturday and Sunday at 8 p.m. to lead the Society's 250-voice chorus, Utah soloists JoAnn Ottley, Doris Brunatti, Dave Arnold and David Power and members of the Utah Symphony.

Before leaving Utah 24 years ago, Gates had been chairman of the Brigham Young University music department for six years, along with serving many other Utah assignments, and was ready for a change of pace. He now resides in Beloit, Wisconsin where he has been music director of the Beloit-Janesville Symphony since 1966, a post he greatly enjoys. "We do lovely things, we have a big endowment with little financial worry, always in the black," he said.This happy state of affairs leaves him much freedom for his composition, which is going at a lively clip. "I have more commissions than ever before," he said, "with six things actively in the works right now, or in the immediate future." Among them is a piano concerto for Grant Johannesen, for which the time and place of premiere is not yet definitely set.

Though he's conducted the great choral masterpieces of the symphonic repertory, Gates has conducted few "Messiahs." But he finds that mid-America is big "Messiah" country, with live performances on all sides, and he's conducted three of them in southern Wisconsin during the past three years.

Gates recalled leading the Oratorio Society in "Messiah" back in 1972, when he substituted for Walter Susskind, who was laid low with bursitis.

"But when I received the invitation 11 months ago to lead the Oratorio Society's 75th, I saw my chance to study `Messiah' in depth," he explained. "It is so familiar that many of us could conduct it pretty much on sight, but I decided to approach it as if I had never seen or heard it before, and it has been a remarkably rewarding study.

"I read several wonderful new books about `Messiah,' notably the one written by Eric Larson, which updates all the historical research. Larson points out the magnificence of the text, assembled by Charles Jennens, though Handel himself was involved in the selection."

Gates noted that the work falls into three sections, each of which is divided into a number of subsections, and each subsection (with few exceptions) consisting of a recitative, aria and chorus.

"You have first the prophecies and birth of Christ, second the prophecies of and the Passion itself, and finally the glory of the Resurrection. The division within the sections, the order and structure for each subthought, is remarkably well worked out," he said.

Does he believe that this structure came to Handel at random, since the work was composed in 24 days? "No, it's too evident and too masterful to have happened accidentally, it must have been planned," Gates replied. "It's like the creation - it could hardly have happened by accident."

In line with his plan of fresh discovery, Gates made a detailed analysis of "Messiah's" forty movements, spending 250 to 300 hours on the project with the aid of his computer. "My wife calls me an arithmomaniac," he laughed. He's "microanalyzed" each movement, seeing just what kinds of phrases it contains, and how the counterpoint flows.

His analysis has been a `labor of love" that has led to an especially lucid and clear understanding of "Messiah" and an agenda for his rehearsals, with a succinct list of things he wants to point out to the performers. "I want to do the work right, as I perceive it," he said. "I won't impose my will or shake down tradition, but I think I may have some clarifications to offer."

Does he consider that the standard dynamic and tempo markings are in accordance with Handel's wishes? "I worked from the Watkins-Shaw edition, for which the editors went back to the original Handel," he replied. "I have tried to pretty much follow the score except in cases where obvious differences exist. For instance, only one forte at the beginning of `Worthy is the Lamb' is obviously not enough."

Having considered the piece from all angles, Gates concludes that "it is a towering masterpiece, not only of music, but of the human spirit. As well as I know it, there are still places in the music that bring tears to my eyes."