Bluegrass show heralds Cisel Hall’s return to center stage


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Mark Fenderson, co-chair of the Music Department at MSU Billings, stands in the seating area of Cisel Recital Hall, the intimate performance space on campus.

Trent Inderland is looking forward even more keenly than usual to a bluegrass concert in Billings next week.

Inderland, vice president and concert coordinator for the Yellowstone Bluegrass Association, is excited partly because the group that’s playing July 7 is the Gibson Brothers band, winner of numerous awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association and veteran of the Grand Ole Opry.

But he’s also excited because the Gibson Brothers will be playing at Cisel Recital Hall on the campus of Montana State University Billings, which the local bluegrass association has not been able to use in five or six years.

“Acoustically, it’s probably the best in town,” Inderland said of Cisel Hall. “It’s almost like sitting in your living room. It’s just a nice vibe. … And the musicians love it because they can hear everything when they’re in there.”

The bluegrass association used to put on three to four shows a year at Cisel, bringing in top acts from all over the country. Because most of the shows were recorded and broadcast on “Strings and Things,” a weekly program on Yellowstone Public Radio, which is affiliated with MSU Billings, there was no charge for use of the hall.

Then, five or six years ago, that arrangement was rescinded and the cost of renting Cisel became prohibitive, especially for an organization that always gave 100 percent of ticket sales to the bands, while providing for the hall and a sound system.

“That’s kind of the public service we do,” Inderland said.

Apparently the powers that be in the MSUB Music Department wanted to make it less attractive to outside groups, keeping it in pristine shape for the regular series of student and faculty recitals and other campus-specific events, including some classes and convocations.

Now, because of retirements in the department, there is no one chairman. Instead, Mark Fenderson, an assistant professor of high brass, and Doug Nagel, assistant professor of voice, are acting as co-chairs. They are also aided by John Roberts, low brass, currently the only other full-time member of the music faculty. (They are hoping to hire a full-time woodwinds instructor before the start of the new school year.)

They jointly decided they wanted the department to play a larger role in the community, and that meant making better use of Cisel Hall.

“We’re interested in rebranding the Music Department and developing new and lasting relationships with the music education system and the community in general,” Fenderson said.

As it happened, the new chancellor at MSU Billings, Ron Larson, named to the position last winter, felt the same way about the institution as a whole.

“He is hoping to make MSU Billings the heart of Billings,” Fenderson said. “He wants it to be thought of as a destination.”

And if the university is going to be the heart of the city, Fenderson added, “we would like Cisel Hall and the Music Department to be the heart of the campus.”


The Gibson Brothers band will play Cisel Recital Hall next Friday.

In addition to re-establishing a relationship with the bluegrass association, Fenderson said, the department will be open to other uses of Cisel Hall, including the possibility of allowing School District 2 to use the hall and several classrooms in the building for its annual district music festival.

The bluegrass association will be paying a nominal maintenance fee for use of Cisel Hall, because all bluegrass shows will be recorded for future broadcast on “Strings and Things,” of which Inderland is one of three rotating hosts. They will also do live broadcasts in the future, if a concert coincides with the show’s Saturday time slot of 8 to 9 p.m.

Since the last time the association put on a show at Cisel, Inderland said, it has booked shows into the Babcock Theater, the NOVA Center for the Performing Arts and Blue Creek Baptist Church. Those are all good venues, he said, but the combination of superb acoustics and an intimate setting—there are 230 seats—puts Cisel in a class by itself.

Fenderson said the hall is so good because of its small size, the acoustical tiles suspended from the ceiling, and the wood latticework with cloth backing on the side and rear walls, all of which combine to keep sound from bouncing around the room. The hall also has three “really fine” grand pianos, Fenderson said.

Traditionally, Inderland said, the Yellowstone Bluegrass Association snags bands on their way to larger venues, and the stop in Billings is basically a chance to earn a little gas money and get them down the road. The Gibson Brothers, for instance, will be on their way to the Montana Folk Festival in Butte, where they have several performances scheduled for July 8 and 9.

The show at Cisel Hall is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Friday, July 7. Tickets are $25 at the door. Doors open at 6:30.

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