From Estonia, with flute
WORTHINGTON -- When the "Amazing" Worthington City Band assembles for concerts at 7:30 p.m. both today and tomorrow in the historic Chautauqua Park band shell, under the baton of Jon Loy for a fifth straight year, American marches and patriotic songs will fittingly be on the programs.
But one of the band's 60-plus instrumentalists will be experiencing the familiar strains of John Philip Sousa's "The Stars and Stripes Forever," among other numbers, for the first time.
That's because flutist Raul Gross, 17, a native of Estonia, has only been in the United States since June 16, although his excellent English skills belie the fact this is his initial visit here.
"The thing with languages is that most Estonians speak several because it's a small country and we have to know them to get a job," shrugged the slender, blonde teen who took a break from reading "War and Peace"-- in Russian -- for a Tuesday morning interview.
"There are only 1.3 million people in Estonia, which is less than Minnesota's population," said Gross, who is fluent in Estonian, Russian, English (having studied it since second grade) and has begun learning German.
For the geographically challenged, Gross readily reminds that Estonia shares borders with Latvia and Russia, and is across the sea from Finland and Sweden.
Gross, who hails from Viimsi, a suburb of the Estonian capital Tallinn, landed in Worthington for the summer courtesy of a 10-year pen pal relationship with Oliver Wolyniec, a Worthington High School rising junior.
"When Oliver was in first grade, we sent Raul an Operation Christmas Child box, and four months later he sent a thank-you note," explained Paula Wolyniec, Oliver's mother. "They've been writing ever since, and exchanging birthday and Christmas gifts.
"When we traveled to Germany with the city band in July 2011, we later visited Raul and his family in Estonia," shared Wolyniec, a Worthington Middle School sixth-grade teacher and social studies specialist who is an enthusiastic and able world traveler.
"We wrote so many letters that I got to know them [the Wolyniec family] quite well," assured Gross, who said he feels very comfortable with the Wolyniecs. "They've made me very welcome in their home."
Gross is impressed with the friendliness of most Americans in general, having already traveled with Oliver to and from Tennessee for a church youth mission project.
"Here, people say 'hi' to you on the street, at a store, or the customer service agents say, 'I'll be with you in a minute,'" said Gross. "It's different than in Estonia. Estonians are not as talkative, not very emotional and don't give compliments as easily."
Gross may be an exception to his own description; he freely admits to having quickly developed a taste for Wendy's hamburgers, and he loved the chili he tasted in Tennessee, as well as salmon served at the Wolyniec home.
Baseball, which Oliver plays for the Worthington VFW team, was more alien to him; soccer and tennis have been his sports of preference.
"Baseball ... it's interesting, but like every new sport, I don't understand everything yet," Gross confessed. "I have seen a few games, but I need to see more to understand something of baseball."
Music, however, is an area in which Gross required no remediation, and when the Wolyniecs suggested he bring his flute along in case he had the opportunity to play in the "Amazing" Worthington City Band, he readily complied.
"It's good to get some practice in," said Gross, who took his place in the band's flute section for an extra-long rehearsal Monday night in preparation for the week's two concerts. "In Estonia, we do not have after-school activities, so I went to music school four times a week for seven years.
"We haven't got the marching band tradition, though -- that was new for me -- so I'm not used to playing that kind of music."
Loy, who has been enjoying the full instrumentation this year's roster of 70 summer musicians is providing to the city band, is pleased to welcome Gross for a few of the group's July concerts during the band's 120th season.
"It's a special treat to welcome Raul to the city band experience during July," said Loy, noting that Worthington's band tradition is a "great reflection of this community's spirit and sense of participation."
"Our summer band season has been going very well, and the sound has really come together this year," Loy continued. "Everyone's made a good effort with their musicianship."
Although Gross will take a break from next week's regular Wednesday night concert of classic concert band pieces (and a community bell choir intermission feature) to travel with the Wolyniec family to Colorado, he plans to be back for the season's final two concerts -- a "Christmas in July" performance on July 17 (with Jackson harpist Kathy Fransen scheduled as intermission entertainment) and a tribute to American musical theater on July 24, when the Great Plains String Quartet will entertain, along with a preview of the summer community theater production of "Shrek" on the program.
"And we have some band teens handing out American flags to audience members prior to the Fourth of July concert," revealed Loy. "That's become a recent band tradition on the Fourth."
With fireworks over Lake Okabena following the 7:30 p.m. July 4 concert, Gross, who is staying in the U.S. through Aug. 9, will be steeped in American patriotic traditions in no time.
"I know it is a big celebration and that the fireworks are a big thing," said Gross, admitting that "everything else from the movies is not always accurate, but I know this is one of the most important American holidays of the year."
Gross has been amused that, while some Americans have inquired of him whether Estonia has electricity, the Internet and shoes (yes to all), their most common question to him is whether or not he finds all Americans to be stupid and fat.
"No, you can't judge a nation by one person," Gross responds diplomatically. "You must see every person separately, and get to know people as individuals."
The "Amazing" Worthington City Band performs at 7:30 p.m. today and Thursday in Chautauqua Park. Fireworks over Lake Okabena will follow the July 4th performance at dusk. City band concerts continue at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays through July 24.