Martha’s Vineyard Minnesingers celebrate 45th anniversary

Senior Amalie Tinus rehearses her solo performance. — Photo by Nis Kildegaard

“Saints & Sinners:” It’s the perfect title for the 45th anniversary program of the Minnesingers, this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School’s Performing Arts Center (PAC).

The elite high school choir, created in the spring of 1967 by Tom Mills, became a show choir in 1975, early in Robert Nute’s defining 27-year tenure as director. Janis Wightman, who started with the Minnesingers as their accompanist in 1998 and took over as director in 2006, puts it simply: “The Minnesingers show choir as we know it today is certainly Bob Nute’s legacy.”

Ever since 1975, the Minnesingers’ spring program has had a dual aspect: The concert begins with the choir arrayed on the risers in tuxedos and dresses, singing music from the heart of the choral repertoire. After a quick costume change, the Minnesingers re-emerge, transformed into a song-and-dance troupe that reliably brings down the house.

For the generations of proud parents who attend these programs, it’s always a bit of a wild emotional ride: First, we sigh with satisfaction at the sight of our little angels so neatly groomed, so attentive to their director and singing so sweetly together. Then, we gasp at the sheer hormonal energy as they shake – well, pretty much everything – in the dance performance that follows.

Ms. Wightman has made this contrast the central dynamic of the Minnesingers’ anniversary show. It begins with an ambitious performance of classics, which recapitulate the history of choral music from the middle ages to the present day. The dance program that follows is organized around the seven deadly sins, with numbers exploring each one, from anger and gluttony to lust and greed, sloth, envy, and pride.

We sat in on the Minnesingers’ first tech run-through last Thursday night, May 10 – Ms. Wightman calls it “our first stumble-through” – and even with the stumbling, it held the promise of another blockbuster spring program for the show choir.

The choral program opens with the deceptively simple two-part harmonies of a medieval piece, John Dunstable’s “O Rosa Bella,” and skates through the centuries to finish with the hauntingly polyphonic Eric Whitacre composition, “Water Night.” When 27 voices break into 14 separate parts, it’s a goosebumps moment that you don’t want to miss.

The dance program, choreographed by Lianna Loughman, opens with a high-octane hip-hop number, “Nobody’s Listening,” featuring solos by senior Chris Pitt and junior Julia Cooper, and accelerates from there. With five of the dance numbers backed by a live band featuring drummer Noah Stuber, guitarist Alistair Morgan, and bassist Avery Lazes, the PAC will definitely be rocking.

This program will be the curtain call for six Minnesingers who are off to college in the fall. Haley Hewson, Alyssa Laslovich, Chris Pitt, Amalie Tinus, Ian Tripp and Anna Yukevich will be taking their final bows as Minnesingers, and five of them will also be taking solo turns in their last program with the show choir.

In the weeks after graduation, Ms. Wightman will hold a round of auditions for the 2012-2013 Minnesingers. She expects perhaps 50 candidates to participate in the try-outs, and with only six seniors leaving, she knows the competition will be fierce.

But keeping the group small, Ms. Wightman says, is part of what makes the Minnesingers the Minnesingers: “This is a premier group. I think we all feel, kids included, that the sense of an elite performing group is better fostered with smaller numbers.”

The first tech run-through, with barely more than a week remaining until showtime, is always a little scary, Ms. Wightman admits.

“I’d be worried if they were perfect right now, because they’d be peaking too early. Would I like it to be all memorized and ready to perform? Sure. But it’s never been that way. Never in 14 years. It’s always in the week before I’m saying, ‘Oh my God, are we ever going to pull this off?’ And I have to have people tell me, ‘yes.'”

The bottom line for Janis Wightman, clearly, is her pride in the Minnesingers. They’re a talented, hard-working group, whose members excel not only onstage but in the classroom and in the high school’s sports arenas – this year’s choir includes student-athletes on the softball, basketball, ice hockey, and track teams. “I just admire their ability to balance everything,” she says, “— work and school and athletics, college applications, pressures from home — everything.”

Looking ahead to this weekend’s show, she concludes: “Are they going to be perfect? No, I can’t remember when we’ve ever had a perfect performance. Are they going to be good, and enjoy themselves, and is the audience going to absolutely love it? Yes.”

“Saints & Sinners,” the 45th anniversary program of the Minnesingers, 7 pm, Saturday, May 19, and 3 pm, Sunday, May 20, Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School Performing Arts Center, Oak Bluffs. $10; $7 seniors/students.