Sounds of chattering teenagers filled the performance hall as they slowly gathered around the piano at the center of the stage. Dressed in causal clothing, some of it splashed with names of colleges they hope to attend next fall, these Island teens appeared relaxed in their role as international performers fresh off a seven-engagement tour of Austria.
After performing in the cathedrals, palaces and streets of Vienna, the Minnesingers this week were preparing for this weekend’s Island show, called Can You Dig It?
The Minnesingers, a choral and dance ensemble that consists of 45 students between 15 and 18, will be celebrating the 40th anniversary of its conception. If the upcoming performances are less glamorous than their Austrian experience, the shows nevertheless provide the Minnesingers with an opportunity to share how much they have matured and learned on their trip, said the group’s choreographer Jil Matrisciano.
“I talked to them about peaking as performers, and I really feel like they are about to peak,” she explained as the sounds of the group warming up resonated in the hall. “They had some fabulous moments in Austria and that builds on their confidence. There is a maturity that comes with traveling to Europe without your parents and performing in front of foreign audiences. They understand that they are not just performing for their parents and peers, but they are actual performers.”
Attended by the 45-member group and their supporting cast of technicians, chaperones and crew, the trip brought the Minnesingers to three Austrian cities during their school’s spring break. The students stayed with local families, which allowed the students to really experience Austrian culture.
The Minnesingers were also treated to guided tours on all their stops, said Lydia Fischer, a 17-year-old senior from Aquinnah. “My favorite part of the trip was when we were in Vienna,” bubbled the teen who will attend the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston in the fall. “We sang at the same church Mozart attended. I started crying, because we were just singing for ourselves without an audience. It was just so beautiful.”
That effect was created by design, to enhance the musical experience of the group, explained the Minnesingers director, Daniel Murphy, now in his 11th year at the helm of the ensemble. “We were going to places where we performed in churches and concert halls, where the music that we performed was meant to be performed,” he said after directing a rigorous vocal practice on Tuesday. “I want them to experience the music where it was originally meant to be experienced by those who composed it.”
His plan seemed to work. “It opened up a lot of different doors as far as what music means to me and what it meant to the whole group,” Lydia said confidently. “We really grew as a group from this experience.”
This sentiment was echoed by Lydia’s mother, Linda Fischer, who was hidden away in a back room with a few other mothers, so as not to ruin the surprise of seeing the show for the first time on opening night. “It was a moving time for her,” beamed the proud mother. “I think she came back more mature. She had a introspective way of looking at her home-stay experiences, the country, the flowers, the food, and she really realized how lucky she was to be there.”
Mrs. Fischer was quick to add, “These experiences wouldn’t have happened without the community’s help. They give donation after donation. They have been there for us for 40 years now.”
Mr. Murphy knows there is a tangible outcome to these donations: “For the students to have something that they can be proud of, a real product, is great. These students put something really special together and proved to themselves that they can be constant.”
This product can be seen by the public twice this weekend. Can You Dig It? is a show divided into two parts, each highlighting different talents of the Minnesingers.
The first half consists of a very well-organized selection of choral pieces that range from the ancient to the contemporary. “With the ch)oral numbers I always try to do a range,” Mr. Murphy described. “As musicians, if we have just steady diet of one kind of music, then that’s all we can bring to a performance. So I do anything from Gregorian chant, to Renaissance pieces, classical pieces, modern pieces, a few Gospels and a Hebrew number.”
The second half of the program is vocal and dance performances set to a 70s theme. These selections incorporate all aspects of the flamboyant era — the wild dance moves, boisterous costumes and ever-present disco ball. “We wanted to take something overseas that everyone could relate to,” said Ms. Matrisciano. “A lot of the voices in the 70s were big voices, like Donna Summer, so it is something we had to work around. But we have voices that can handle this music.”
Many in the audience will connect immediately with staples of American disco played during their formative years.
“I know every word to every song,” recollects Mrs. Fischer. “To hear the music, and recollecting points in my life like going to the prom and my college years, is very powerful.”
Asked how she thinks she will feel seeing her daughter sing the songs of her youth, Mrs. Fischer said, “It brings the generations a little closer. The gap becomes a little smaller.”
And for a teenage daughter and her mother, that is always something to dig.
The Minnesingers perform Can You Dig It? on Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. at the Performing Arts Center at the high school. Tickets available at the door: $10 adult, $5 students/seniors, and on Sunday, a $25 family maximum.