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A second year without Handel’s ‘Messiah’

RINDGE — Handel’s “Messiah,” a nearly four-decade long tradition that brought an average of 250 people from near and far together annually, will not be held at Franklin Pierce University for a second consecutive holiday season.

The concert has been held annually for 37 years on the first Saturday of December, with singers having come as far away as Florida for past concerts. Some concerts over the years have had as many as 500 audience members.

David E. Brandes, founder and director of the “Messiah” and music professor at FPU, said in a Nov. 27 interview with the Ledger-Transcript that he does not foresee the holiday concert returning to FPU in the immediate future. The “Messiah” was initially cut from the institution’s budget in 2011.

“We are doing a formal evaluation of the school’s music program and the ‘Messiah’ will be a part of that,” he said. “I think that probably we are going to turn the page, at least for now.”

The “Messiah” concert used to cost the university thousands of dollars annually to host, and included a director, professional orchestra and soloists. The university never charged admission for the concert and, therefore, picked up the entire cost, Brandes said.

Brandes said he’s contacted a couple of community chorus groups in the Monadnock region, suggesting that they consider carrying on the tradition of the “Messiah,” but none have agreed to do so thus far. Although the “Messiah,” will not take place at FPU this year, Brandes said, the holiday concert is held in many communities statewide, including Keene, where the region’s residents can go instead of Rindge to participate.

The university’s decision to cut the “Messiah” from its budget in the fall of 2011 came at Brandes’ recommendation, which was triggered by FPU President James Birge’s announcement of staff layoffs that spring. Brandes told the Ledger-Transcript in December 2011 that he believed it was more prudent to cut extracurricular programs than jobs, which is why he proposed dropping the “Messiah.”

Student enrollment at FPU had also been on a decline since the fall of 2006. However, the recent spike in enrollment with more than 600 freshmen and transfer students taking classes at FPU in the fall of 2012 is a positive sign, Brandes said. And, an opportune time for the school to revisit the benefits of holding the “Messiah,” he noted.

Despite the disappointment that the cancellation of the “Messiah” caused the community last year, Brandes said late last month that he stands by his 2011 recommendation to university administrators.

“A year ago when our enrollment dropped and funds were tightened we made the decision to cut the ‘Messiah’ and it hasn’t been strongly revisited since then,” Brandes said. “We were waiting to see what would happen with enrollment. It is up, but rather than push the return of the program this year, it’s under review first.”

Making a quick decision about whether or not to restore the program this December would not have been sensible, Brandes said.

“We weren’t ready to make that decision that fast this year,” he said. “It may be best, too, for the university to turn a page and go in another direction. I don’t know.”

FPU alumnae Rose Finlay of Hamburg, Germany, who sang in the event for two years, told the Ledger-Transcript in December 2011 that she was saddened by the loss of the concert, but understood the financial reasoning behind the cut.

Finlay said she hopes people don’t now have the mentality that the “Messiah” concert will be gone forever, and that community organizations, alumni and current students will step up to bring it back.

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