In the spring of 1967, Tom Mills, the high school choral and orchestral director at the time, hand-picked a select group of student singers who began meeting to sing madrigals and sacred music. When thinking of possible names for the group someone floated the idea, Tom Grape and His Bunch. Thankfully, Barbara Lopes, then a freshman in high school, had a better idea: The Minnesingers, in tribute to a performance troupe of “lovers of song” who traveled throughout Germany in the 12th to 14th centuries.
The name turned out to be a perfect fit. For 45 years, the Minnesingers have embodied what it truly means to be lovers of song, becoming a beloved Island institution. In celebration of their 45th anniversary, the Minnesingers will perform next weekend, May 19 and 20, at the Performing Arts Center at the regional high school.
Known today for their European tours as well as their many concerts on Island throughout the year, in 1967 the Minnesingers stayed close to home, performing mostly at Vineyard churches. The following year, the singers had traveled “as far afield as Albany,” the Vineyard Gazette reported.
Soon after, the group began touring college campuses and Ms. Lopes and her friends made a Vineyard Minnesingers banner in ancient script to hang on the sides of the luxury coach bus used to transport the group.
Island philanthropist Molly McAlpin donated money so the singers could shed their original costumes of bright green jumpers in favor of skirts and vests made of grey and purple tweed, all of which were made by hand.
According to Bob Nute, Minnesingers music director from 1969 to 1995, everything changed when dance was introduced to the program in 1975. “The kids wanted to move,” he recalled with a chuckle. Mr. Nute traveled to Pennsylvania to observe workshops led by Fred Waring, often referred to as “The Man Who Taught America How To Sing.”
Mr. Nute loved Mr. Waring’s concept of performing traditional choral numbers and then breaking into pop songs. He also thought “the kids” would love it, and he was right. The audiences embraced the new style, too, and the structure of the spring concert has remained the same ever since.
The Minnesingers made their first trip to Europe in 1986. The high school’s principal at the time, Dr. Gregory Scotten, had arranged homestays and concerts for the singers, but at the last moment that first trip almost didn’t happen. The trip was nearly derailed when agents of Muammar Gaddafi bombed a West Berlin nightclub. Mr. Nute recalled a tense school board meeting that ended with an 11 p.m. decision to allow the singers to travel overseas the following morning.
The 2010 trip was canceled when volcanic explosions in Iceland made air travel impossible.
But traditionally the singers have maintained a consistent and ambitious schedule of singing in Europe every other year, including performances in Stuttgart, Ludwigshafen, Paris and the Czech Republic. Next year, music director Jan Wightman plans to lead the singers through Croatia.
Ms. Lopes still remembers her trips off-Island with the group and hearing the full reverberation of sound when singing at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Mr. Nute had a similar experience at a Nuremberg, Germany cathedral where, after the group finished singing, the acoustics caused vibrations for four to five seconds more. Mr. Nute also recalled the unique reception his singers received from the construction workers at the cathedral in Nuremberg when they stopped work on the ceiling to listen and applaud.
Ms. Wightman said last year she watched the students’ eyes grow wide after landing their first notes at a cathedral in Prague.
“They were all speechless,” she said, noting that she herself sobbed at the sound. She also remembered the impact of singing Hebrew songs at a Jewish synagogue in the Czech Republic and at a cemetery at the Holocaust Museum.
The Minnesingers’ travel schedule helps give the students a full global perspective, and not just related to singing. Mr. Nute remembered a trip to Germany and Communist Europe as most illuminating. “To get that bath once a week on Saturdays is kind of unusual for American kids,” he said.
Membership in the Minnesingers is achieved after a rigorous audition process where students are tested on tone, diction, strength, musicality and rhythmic and melodic accuracy. Ms. Wightman estimates that 40 to 50 students audition each year. A strong commitment is required of the students, who attend twice-weekly rehearsals but also spend time learning the music on their own to perfect pitch and the pronunciation of words in languages such as Lithuanian, Latin and French.
For current Minnesinger Sam Permar, becoming a part of the group was a dream come true. “I went to Minnesingers concerts before I joined,” he said. “I remember seeing how professional they looked and I felt like I was watching a Broadway show.”
Senior Haley Hewson, for whom the spring concert will be one of her last high school performances, found that “the Minnesingers were exactly my kind of people. I’ve always felt that Minnesingers are a second family to me.”
The group’s financial needs are primarily met by the Minnesinger Parent Group. Current president Karen Overtoom, whose daughter Olivia is a second-year Minnesinger, said the annual fund-raising goal is $20,000 to $25,000. Funds are raised through a variety of means including an annual auction, sale of chocolates, and, of course, bake sales. The money earned is used for travel and practical expenses such as renting a mirrored rehearsal space so that the students can watch themselves during rehearsals.
“The community is so generous,” Ms. Overtoom said. “Minnesingers are very beloved. Everybody knows somebody who was a Minnesinger.”
When the current group of singers take the stage next weekend, a lot of elements will look familiar, but there will also be a few twists to celebrate the 45th anniversary. For the first half of the performance, Ms. Wightman has chosen “a little musical history tour” of songs originating from each country the Minnesingers have traveled to over the years. The performance features photographs from the group’s international tours, “to honor the history and also give people a sense of where we performed,” she added.
In the second half of the show, the students will address the Seven Deadly Sins through song and dance. Choreographer Lianna Loughman noted that this year’s performance features a lot of hip hop dance. A live band of four student musicians will accompany the dancers.
Bob Nute, who did so much to establish the group’s traditions, recently attended a rehearsal and marvelled at how great the group sounded and the legacy of the Minnesingers.
“After all these years, it’s still going on,” he said. “Very few groups stay together that long and still have pride in what they do. This little school has put out some very fine music. It’s Martha’s Vineyard children performing, it’s all the good things you want for your kids. It was a good thing years ago and it still is today.”
Concerts at the Performing Arts Center at the regional high school are Saturday, May 19 at 7 p.m. (doors open at 6:30 p.m.), and Sunday May 20 at 3 p.m. (doors open at 2:30). Tickets are $7 for students and seniors, $10 for adults.