In inaugural post-pandemic performance, choral group fills historic grain mill with voices
By Mira Brody EBS STAFF
BOZEMAN – A recording of a homeless man in London singing the verse “Jesus blood never failed me yet. There’s one thing I know: that He loves me so.” plays on loop, acting as the foundation on top of which the internationally-acclaimed and Grammy winning chamber choir The Crossing place their melodic voices. It’s the opening song of their July 27 performance at Story Mill, the defunct historic grain mill on Bozeman’s northeast side, and their first in-person performance since before the pandemic.
The weathered nature of the man’s vocals, nobility and simple faith of his words and redundancy of the loop fit in with the brick building, shadowed by towering grain storage tanks. It was here that so many immigrants arrived in the Gallatin Valley in the 1800s to work and earn a living. Alongside the voices, attendees could almost feel the gritty work that took place here.
The performance was a part of the group’s weeklong residency program in Big Sky and produced through a unique and new partnership between the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center and Tinworks Art in Bozeman. Eli Ridgway, Tinworks’ co-director along with Melissa Ragain, says the connection is no accident—that artists often feel drawn to roughened, historic spaces as a theater in which to present their craft.
“We’ve really found that the artists respond so positively to working in sort of, big, industrial spaces,” Ridgway said. “I think they come across as kind of a blank canvas, as opposed to a space that really screams what it is. And it’s so big, it’s made for big things.”
In addition to “Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet,” The Crossing also performed the first live version of “in nature/I feel,” a project that was forced into a hybrid format last year that included poetic lines of ones reflections as they experience nature’s offerings, as well as “SHIFT,” a new, three-part song that utilized a Black Liberation chant, channeling feelings of strength and catharsis.
Catharsis is exactly what WMPAC Executive Director John Zirkle says he felt joining The Crossing as not only a producer and host of their residency program, but also a performer. Although the performing arts center worked hard to keep people connected during the pandemic, he says there’s no replacement to being in a room experiencing something with a group of people—without all of the technology issues virtual performances inevitably run into. It’s an experience that brought many of the choir members to tears during rehearsal.
“The main thing is being in the room all together, that’s the new feeling,” Zirkle said. “There’s a simplicity of just being back in a room—that part really does feel like the awakening and the reminder.”
The residency program with The Crossing began as an idea in 2014 and a reality in 2015. Zirkle wanted to bring artists working on new projects to find reprieve and inspiration—like many—in the mountains. “There’s nothing more freeing than working on new art in the mountains,” he said.
Since then, the relationship between WMPAC and The Crossing has grown into a successful annual program that allows the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania-based choir to experience southwest Montana, and work alongside the community. Before their departure, The Crossing will perform Friday, July 30 where attendees will hike along Jack Creek Preserve among the voices of the Crossing, and Saturday, July 31, which takes place in a spacious meadow in Cache Creek. Tickets to both experiences are sold by vehicle. The cost is $50 per car, but there is no limit on the number of audience members within each car.
Back in Story Mill, The Crossing starts in on their second song, “in nature,” the first time the group has done so together, in person. Some singers are placed outside of the stage area and along the side of the audience rows, making it feel as though we are standing in the midst of a flowing river, the sounds enveloping us all. The acoustics of the tall brick walls and open doorways create a natural cathedral—a few contemporary Tinworks Art displays sitting quietly in the far corners of the building, listening.
After the song concludes and the standing ovation ceases, conductor Donald Nally turns from the choir to face a room full of faces.
“It really is so beautiful to be in a room full of people smiling,” he said.