The Crossing rehearsing for a concert at Crane Arts. (Photo courtesy of Becky Oehlers Photography)

The Crossing rehearsing for a concert at Crane Arts. (Photo courtesy of Becky Oehlers Photography)

by Kevin Dicciani

When The Crossing choir joins students from Jenks Academy for the Arts and Sciences for a concert on April 18, the power that music has in bringing together those of various ages and walks of life will be on full display.

The idea to bring together these two groups arose over two years ago when Renee Warnick, vice president of the Friends of J.S. Jenks, read an article in the Local about the Chestnut Hill Community Fund’s Challenge Grants, which were designed to connect two nonprofit organizations in the area for a novel and exciting project. The article cited various examples of pairings that could qualify for the grants, including one that listed the Friends of J.S. Jenks and The Crossing. Inspired, Warnick set out to turn that suggestion into a reality.

Formed in 2005, The Crossing, a professional chamber choir in Philadelphia conducted by Donald Nally, specializes in new music and often commissions works and premieres with ensembles from across the world. The group has won two ASCAP awards for Adventurous Programming in addition to the Dale Warland Singers Omission Award from Chorus America.

When Warnick told her idea to Haviva Goldman, president of Friends of J.S. Jenks, Goldman was immediately enticed, finding it to be a “really unique opportunity.” It was then brought to the attention of Mary Lynskey, principal of Jenks, who thought partnering with The Crossing was complimentary to the school’s idea of education being more than pens and papers in a classroom.

“We were especially excited to partner with the Crossing because they are rooted in the Chestnut Hill community, and their work compliments our mission,” Lynsey said. “As an academy for the arts and sciences, we seek to move beyond the ‘walls and bells’ and offer students experiences beyond the norm.”

Goldman said the experience would broaden student’s minds by allowing them to partake of a musical genre they wouldn’t ordinarily listen to, a thought she shared with Steven Gearhart, The Crossing’s managing director and assistant conductor. Gearhart, who has overseen the project from the beginning, said he was interested in having the opportunity to work with students over a two-year period, a process that would utilize an array of creative elements – from poetry, to composition, to singing – and produce something both original and inspiring.

With the two sides in accord over the concept, the Friends of J.S. Jenks and The Crossing applied for a CHCF Challenge Grant and were awarded $8,000 for the project. The two organizations also received a $13,000 grant from the Presser Foundation, a private foundation dedicated to music education and music philanthropy, along with a smaller grant to cover administrative costs. The Friends of J.S. Jenks and The Crossing provided additional funds to the project as well.

Warnick said that Nally, a recipient of the 2012 Louis Botto Award for Innovative Action and Entrepreneurial Zeal, has been heavily involved with every aspect of the project’s artistic process, such as identifying and choosing the poet and the composer. With the project rooted locally, Warnick said that Nally wanted to limit his search to artists based in Philadelphia. He eventually chose poet Ryan Eckes and composer Kile Smith, the composer in residence for Lyric Fest, the Helena (Mont.) Symphony and the Church of the Holy Trinity, Philadelphia.

The first stage of the creative process began last April with Eckes. During National Poetry Month, Eckes worked with middle-school students from Jenks’ JAM (Jenks Art and Music) program, teaching them about the craft and advising them as they wrote their own poems, which they later presented at a school assembly. It was during this time that Ecke’s poem “May Day,” the poem that became the central piece of music to be premiered at the upcoming concert, started to find its form.

Once “May Day” was complete, Smith gave students an intimate look into the creative process as he adapted the poem into a musical composition. The song will be sung by 20 fourth- and fifth-grade students and 24 members of The Crossing, giving students a chance to be a part of a world premiere performance. To prepare for this performance, The Crossing’s teaching artists and singers have been giving vocal instructions to students and rehearsing with them for weeks.

Gearhart said he hoped over the course of the past two years that students would witness firsthand the level of effort it takes to create something entirely new from scratch. He said the experience has already embedded in students the confidence that comes along with setting your mind to something and seeing that it’s finished.

“They’ve been working on this for almost a year now and taking ownership over it to a point that it’s becoming a part of them,” Gearhart said. “So when they deliver this new creation, taking something that’s never been created before and bringing it to life, I think that’s going to give them quite a sense of achievement.”

Gearhart said the experience will flow into other areas of the students’ lives as well.

“That sense of accomplishment, of being able to work hard towards something and then knowing that you’ve done a really, really good job, I think after this performance is over, they’re going to have that feeling again,” he said.

The concert will also feature songs from The Crossing’s current repertoire. It will be held in the auditorium at Jenks, which, Warnick said, will afford members of the community a chance to “step inside the doors and see the great things that are happening at Jenks.”

Gearhart said audiences are going to be amazed at the level of performances everyone gives, accentuated by the fact that its being held in a school at the epicenter of Chestnut Hill.

“People are really going to enjoy what they hear The Crossing and the students present and be surprised that it’s right in their backyard,” Gearhart said.

Lynskey said the partnership between The Crossing and the school has been an exciting journey for all of the children involved.

“To see a piece of poetry created and take life, then set to music and given wings, has been extraordinary,” Lynskey said. “The members of The Crossing who have worked with our students have shared an amazing gift, and performing with these talented musicians will not only hold a place in the memory of each child, but will influence the development of each individual’s talent for the rest of their lives.”

Warnick said the experience is going to be memorable for all involved – The Crossing, the students, their parents, the faculty, the community – as these types of moments, coming along once every so often, are a rarity that should be treasured and remembered forever.

“It is exciting to be able to hear something brand new, just being released into the ether for the first time, and I can’t wait to experience it,” Warnick said. “Not very many people, let alone fourth and fifth graders, can say they participated in a world premiere. That’s pretty special.”

The concert begins at Jenks on April 18 at 2 p.m. It is free of charge and refreshments will be provided.