Young Voices Invite Cheers of Our Island

By NIS KILDEGAARD

When the regional high school Minnesingers traveled to Lithuania last year, they were warmly received by their host school, the Lithuanian Youth Centre in the capital city of Vilnius. This year the Vineyard community returned the favor, inviting a group of singers from the renowned Versme choir from the school at Vilnius for a week-long visit to the Vineyard.

Monday night, on the eve of their return trip home, the Vineyard's guests and newfound friends gave a farewell concert to an enthusiastic full house at the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown. It was a generous evening of superb choral music, made all the richer by the emotion of the moment. Even as the fine acoustics of the old hall gave resonance to the 18 young voices of the Versme choir, the sense of a deepening transatlantic friendship added to the audience's enjoyment of each traditional Lithuanian tune.

Last Friday, the Versme choir wowed the Massachusetts Music Educators Association at its annual all-state conference in Boston. Monday night was the Vineyard community's turn to be amazed at the bell-like purity of the choir's classic European sound.

The singers, with their director, Alina Valentinaviciene, took to the Old Whaling Church stage in traditional costume - long white dresses, long tresses in pigtails and delicately embroidered headbands. The choir opened its concert by departing from the program, inviting the audience to stand and join in the singing of the Star-Spangled Banner. It was an unexpectedly touching moment, the first of the evening's many gestures of friendship.

The program continued with a set of folk songs from the heart of the Lithuanian tradition. Here the Versme choir was in its element, singing a cappella with nary a pitch-pipe to start a song, its sense of pitch uncannily perfect, its phrasing full, its lyricism achingly sweet.

The choir sang songs of life's passages - of childhood and wedding days - and songs of love for their homeland. In one piece, The Muse of Homeland, the girls seemed to sing an entire verse on a single breath. Their sound was alternately haunting and exhilarating, sometimes distilling into a single somber chord, sometimes fracturing into sparkling four and six-part harmonies.

The Versme choir sang a sprightly song for the spring equinox, its melody set in a dancing 6/8 meter. As the song concluded, one girl stepped to the front of the stage, reached into a pouch and tossed handfuls of candy to the very back rows of the hall. It could have been a corny gesture, but like the rest of the concert, it was delivered with a joy and sincerity that redeemed it entirely.

The sound of the Versme choir has little darkness in it - it partakes more of the element of sky than of the earth. When the choir performed The Sun Is Rising, the girls began by crouching on the stage; as they sang, four girls slowly rose to stand, then two more, then four more, until the whole choir was on its feet, arms extended to the sky. It wasn't exactly a Minnesingers dance routine, but the effect was surprisingly dramatic.

Listeners were entranced. There was a delightfully unforced quality to the way the Versme choir made its exquisitely crystalline sound. That sound seemed to flow effortlessly from the singers and fill the hall. And the intonation - every voice was set in the perfect, sweet center of each note.

Late in the concert, an emotional high point came with the choir's performance of two Ave Marias, first by Gluck and then by Bach. The singers took their languorous time with this music, opening it up like a flower to reveal its very heart, letting the melody soar and circle back like a canon. This set closed with the girls singing pianissimo, the audience almost straining forward to savor the last lingering note. It was a knockout punch wrapped in a whisper.

The Minnesingers briefly joined the Versme choir on stage for some joint music-making; there were speeches in halting English and an affectionate exchange of gifts. Dan Murphy, director of the Minnesingers, looked particularly dapper in a stole embroidered to commemorate this historic cultural exchange.

Then it was time for the boffo finish. When the Versme choir began marching offstage, still singing the chorus of its final song, the Old Whaling Church erupted as the audience jumped to its feet to offer a grateful ovation.