Twenty-one young women line up in staggered rows onstage. Their left hands form crisp salutes against their foreheads. At a signal from choreographer Ken Romero, they begin slowly reciting:
He was a famous trumpet man
From out Chicago way
The hands drop from the heads in a dismissive gesture.
He had a boogie style
That no one else could play
The lyrics emerge at a snail’s pace while the girls walk through the accompanying choreography. Recently home from their eight-day trip to Spain, some are still fighting the effects of jet lag, while others struggle to contain the excitement about the upcoming concert.
He was the top man at his craft
But then his number came up
And he was gone with the draft
Rock step, triple step, Shorty George. Ken stops them for a correction, then counts out, “Five, six, seven, bop-bop!” The girls continue.
He’s in the army now
He’s the boogie-woogie bugle boy of Company B
Soon the girls are joined by 11 boys, and the entire stage becomes chaos as the performers strain to remember their positions. It takes a goodly amount of time for Ken to settle them back down and restart.
Among their own, the Minnesingers are allowed a little anarchy. There’s more excitement here than a pack of teenage bodies can contain, but the concert is less than two weeks away, and much rehearsal time was lost to snow days. There will be no bedlam allowed during performances, and choreographer Ken Romero, director Jan Wightman, stage manager Jeff Caruthers, and accompanist Nancy Rogers do their best to keep order and move ahead.
Since 1967 the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School’s (MVRHS) Minnesingers, an elite choral ensemble that is well-loved for their annual shows at Christmas and springtime, has been performing across the Island, impressing the audience with their captivating song and entertaining dance.
The Minnesingers host sold-out performances each year at the Old Whaling Church during Christmas in Edgartown, and they put on a dance show in May at the MVRHS Performing Arts Center. They also provide numerous performances throughout the community, including at the local senior centers and Windemere.
Now in their 48th year, the Minnesingers were created in the spring of 1967 by Tom Mills, became a show choir in 1975, and worked under the direction of Robert Nute during his 27-year tenure as director. Jan 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 who reliably brings down the house.
This year, like many others, the group traveled abroad, to Spain, in advance of the spring show for some worldly experience, performance, and fun. As part of the program, the Minnesingers travel to Europe every two years to make a concert tour and promote cultural awareness.
Michelle de Geofroy and Grant Santos are two of the 32 students who toured the capitals of southern Spain with eight chaperones. Michelle, a junior, is curly-haired, willowy, chic, and poised beyond her years. She’s been to Europe before, but admits to some excitement at going with friends. “Some of the people on the trip hadn’t traveled all that much,” she says. “It was their first time abroad, and it was really exciting for them. It was cool to be part of that.”
“I’d never been to Spain before,” she continues, “and I don’t speak Spanish, so I was completely out of my depth.”
Grant, a senior, is the tallest of the Minnesingers, with the shortest hair, and most colorful shoes (orange, lime green, and black). He’d never been to Spain before, but he does speak Spanish. “There were times when it was hard, but it was a nice learning experience to be able to use it,” he recalls. “I definitely said a few things wrong.”
One of Grant’s favorite parts of the trip was singing four songs during a Mass in the Mosque Cathedral in Cordoba. “We sang ‘Ave Maria’ in Latin, and the other three in English.
“There’s one cool story that happened at the Mosque Cathedral,” he relates. “There was an older woman who had a cane and came up to us before we went on to perform the Mass. She didn’t speak any English, but asked us in Spanish what we were doing there. I told her that we were going to sing. I saw her after as we were walking to get our picture taken in front of the altar. She kind of blew a kiss at me, and nodded and thanked us.”
Michelle especially enjoyed the Friendship Concert the Minnesingers shared with a choir in Granada. “We sang for about 40 minutes,” she recalls. “We went through about half of our repertoire. The other choir sang for about 20 minutes. It was a choir of women from about ages 20 to 40, and they were absolutely amazing. They sang a lot of traditional Spanish and Latin pieces. Afterwards, they invited us to dinner. We went to dinner at about 11 o’clock at night and got out at about one in the morning. Not a lot of them spoke English, so we were trying to relate across the language barrier. It was such a great experience because they were so much fun, and it was so nice that they wanted to have a meal with us.”
According to director Jan Wightman, the teens impressed wherever they went. “Other than the four concerts they were formally scheduled for, they probably sang 20 other times in various spots. In a plaza here or there, in a restaurant. Anyplace where it looked like people would be interested to listen.
“One of the most valuable things about the trip,” she continues, “was the totally different perception people now have of American teenagers, other than what they’ve seen on TV or experienced with other tour groups. These kids are coming and actually giving a gift to their audiences. One of our tour guides said that they were just wonderful musical ambassadors from our country. Bridging that gap with other countries is just a wonderful thing.”
Midway through rehearsal, the students are calm, engaged, and locked into their parts in a disco-era song. After several rehashes of a mid-song exit and return to the stage, they do an almost perfect run-through. Ken Romero beams with pride, and with good reason. They’re talented kids, and there’s every reason to be proud.
The MVRHS Minnesingers’ annual Spring Concert, “An American Songbook,” and “Celebrating the Oscars,” Saturday, May 9 at 7 pm and Sunday May 10 at 3 pm, at the MVRHS Performing Arts Center. Tickets are $10 ($7 for students and seniors), and are available from any MVRHS Minnesinger or at the door.