Martha’s Vineyard Minnesingers return from Europe for concert

From left: Ashley Gwynn, Amalie Tinus (behind), Anna Yukevich, Jenna Lambert, Haley Hewson rehearse "The Time Warp" from Rocky Horror Picture Show. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

The stage of the Performing Arts Center fills with a high-energy, smiling group of talented students from 14- to 18-years old, dancing across the stage, striking poses, arms waving over their heads, heads snapping back and forth to the music, one minute forming a chorus line, then shifting into smaller groups.

Lianna Loughman, the Minnesingers’s remarkable choreographer calls out, “Hold your bodies tight so we can see the intensity.”

The Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) Minnesingers are rehearsing for The Music of America, Give Our Regards to Broadway, this weekend’s concert that includes a dance show featuring selections from from “Les Miserables,” “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Grease,” “Chicago,” and more.

The students are in the zone, having recently returned from their European trip where they performed excerpts from this program for audiences in Prague and Paris. The European choral program featured sea chanties, jazz, a melody from “Porgy and Bess,” and music by Irving Berlin, Billy Joel, and the like.

Minnesingers director Jan Wightman says, “We’ve learned over the years that you don’t want to take Haydn to Heidelberg.”

Thirty chorus members, seven chaperones (Ms. Wightman, Ms. Loughman, photographer John Wightman, stage manager Jeff Caruthers, accompanist John Gorman, and mothers Nancy Nevin and Cheryl Lowe) spent 10 busy-every-minute days in April traveling with the Minnesingers from Prague to Paris.

“The relationship among the kids was wonderful,” Ms. Wightman says. “I really saw them grow up from the Minnesingers we left with.”

Chaperone Nancy Nevin, mother of senior singer Willy, who tended to the group so well she earned the nickname, “Nurturing Mom,” says, “The kids took care of each other.”

The trip included impromptu as well as five scheduled performances, and with the guidance of Casterbridge Tours, many cultural experiences.

The Minnesingers visited Prague’s Church of St. Nicholas where they tested its extraordinary acoustics by breaking into a self-directed rendition of James Taylor’s “That Lonesome Road” that brought cheers from the audience that gathered.

Ms. Wightman explains they’d been up for 36 hours, but as they sang the tiredness fell away — “and after it was over I went up to them and said, ‘That’s why you’re here; that’s what it’s all about.'”

Willy Nevin says the impromptu performance in the church was a high point for him. He adds, “We also sang randomly in the street and people would circle around, clapping and cheering.”

“I began to see it in Prague, that animation, that telling of the story,” Ms. Wightman says. “I think they are so excited to bring this show home because it was so well received there, and one of the advantages of this trip was the opportunity to perform the numbers before they do it here. It was like having five dress rehearsals, which is hugely beneficial.”

During their six days in Prague they visited the holocaust museum, the oldest running synagogue in Europe (1439) where they sang “Hashivenu,” and the Jewish cemetery, Korunni Chapel, and PodeBrady Spa. They climbed the 299 steps at Petrin Hill, toured Prague Castle, and St. Vitus Cathedral (they sang “Ave Verum Corpus”), performed two shows at the English International School, entertained a crowd at the Old Town Square, and cruised the Vltava River.

Senior Anna Yukevich says, “Because people couldn’t understand the words we had to draw them in with our expressions.”

“Having an audience from another culture — different language, different customs, different culture — gives them pause for thought about how they are presenting their program,” Ms. Wightman says. “I tell the kids, ‘When you sing a song, that’s probably the only time this particular audience is going to hear it, so you have to give that gift every single time. You can never do it less than 150 percent.'”

The momentum continued in Paris where the group cruised the Seine, and went to the Paris Opera House, Arc de Triomphe, Champs Elysees, Notre Dame, Place de Concorde, the Louvre, Eiffel Tower, Sacre Coeur, and the Latin Quarter.

Sophomore Olivia de Geofroy says, “It was an incredible experience. Musically, it was great how we pulled together at the concerts and the rehearsals. Performing was a different experience,” she says. “We were representing our school and our country.”

Both Olivia and Anna Yukevich were among those students who spoke French, and did so as much as they could. “Our guide congratulated us,” Anna says. “And said we were improving the negative, stereotypical image of Americans.” Olivia adds, “The trip really extended everyone’s universe.”

“To me the Minnesingers isn’t the director or the parents group or even this one group of kids,” Ms. Wightman says. “To me it’s an ongoing tradition that we’re moving through ourselves.”

MVRHS Minnesingers concert: The Music of America, Give Our Regards to Broadway, Saturday and Sunday, May 7, 8 pm & May 8, 3 pm, Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School Performing Arts Center, Oak Bluffs. $10; $5 students. For more information, call 508-693-5255.