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Sounds of music: Band members make most of musical ambassadorship

"Amazing" Worthington City Band members pose on the steps of Crailsheim's Rathaus immediately after their July 24 outdoor concert.1 / 3
Ed Berger, Darlene Rautenkranz, Janice Langohr of Crailsheim and Mary Johnson enjoy an authentic German in Rothenberg.2 / 3
At the farewell party, exchange students past and present, from Worthington and Crailsheim alike, gather.3 / 3

WORTHINGTON -- Amid sounds of music, bonds of friendship between Worthington and Crailsheim were strengthened during the "Amazing" Worthington City Band's recent visit to the southern German city.

The road to this adventure began simply, with an invitation from Rudolf Michl, Crailsheim's mayor, for the "Amazing" Worthington City Band (AWCB) to visit and participate in the community's annual Kulturwochenende (Cultural Weekend).

After months of preparation on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, the nearly two-year-old dream became a reality when 41 band instrumentalists, plus the Great Plains String Quartet (GPSQ) and more than 20 additional friends and family members, spent July 19-27, 2011, in Worthington's sister city of 64 years. It had been 17 years since the AWCB's last appearance there.

On the go

Most of the band members, with only a handful of exceptions, were joined by one or more family members, making for plenty of cheerful companionship. Things went smoothly from start to finish, with no lost luggage, instruments or people, no serious illnesses or injuries and no travel disruptions.

"Everything was unbelievably perfect, and there was never a moment of boredom," said Krista Vogt, a Worthington High School (WHS) junior and AWCB trumpeter. "It was the true definition of 'a trip of a lifetime.'"

A multi-generational mix

Chloe Bents, 9, daughter of traveler Colleen Bents and sister of clarinetist Claire Bents, 17, and percussionist Quinn Bents, 13, was the youngest of the Worthington contingent.

"My favorite thing was meeting our host family (Axel and Heidi Huss and children) and spending time with them because they were really nice," commented Chloe.

Twenty of the AWCB's instrumentalists were 13 to 22 years old, and their ranks touched every decade thereafter up to the 70s.

That composition reflects the AWCB's typical membership, and the intergenerational musicianship resulting from students playing next to 50- or 70-year-olds is always part of the group's appeal. Due to the time and financial commitments (participants paid for their own airfare and other incidental expenses -- such as black polo shirts for concerts, and entrance fees), not every band member could join the tour. Proceeds from the AWCB's cookbook, "Sounds Delicious," defrayed some trip-related expenses, and housing was provided by Crailsheim host families.

In addition, the city of Crailsheim generously donated the significant fees for bussing the Worthington folks to and from the Frankfurt airport, as well as for day excursions to other sites in Germany.

The trip's timing allowed the AWCB to accompany Worthington's 2011-12 exchange student (and AWCB saxophonist) Kayli Kuhl to Germany, while her host-brother-to-be, David Etzel (Crailsheim's 2010-11 exchange student to Worthington) returned.

Similarly, the flight home was shared with returning Worthington exchange student Haley Rogers and Crailsheim's 2011-'12 ambassador to Worthington, Sarah Meiser.

Said Rogers, who will be a WHS senior this fall, "I'm not ready to go back to Worthington, but this smoothed the transition a little. I will really miss the people of Crailsheim."

Meanwhile, Etzel was having his own transition back to Germany, although members of two of his Worthington host families -- Dave and Karen Skog and son Tim, 16, an AWCB trombonist, and Genna Putnam, 16, an AWCB trumpeter -- were part of the entourage.

"It was a really nice year, but too short," said Etzel.

Musical interludes

Music was at the core of the AWCB and Great Plains String Quartet's (GPSQ) purpose in Crailsheim, and between the two groups, three concerts were performed. The first to take the stage was the GPSQ on July 20, with the Worthington Brass sharing intermission numbers.

On the wall of the Matthäuskirche in Ingersheim that night -- after the group's first full day in Crailsheim -- was a poster whose words roughly translate as follows: "Don't let evil overcome you; instead, overcome evil with good."

Surrounded by new German friends as well as familiar faces from Worthington in an overflowing church, it was hard not to feel the truth of those words, thinking of how the goodwill first extended to war-devastated Crailsheim residents by Marnie Cashel McCarthy in 1947 had swelled to this level of friendship and understanding.

"When people know each other and understand each other, they do not make war," said Franz Kasimir, Crailsheim's city manager since 1971 and the chief organizer of the Crailsheim-Worthington student exchange for 40 years.

Kasimir believes so strongly in the benefits of sister-city relationships that he has encouraged the five Crailsheim mayors for whom he has worked to actively nurture them. Worthington is Crailsheim's oldest sister city, but not its only one; Crailsheim subsequently established sister city ties with Pamiers, France (1969), Bilgoraj, Poland (2000) and Jurbarkas, Lithuania (2000).

Working with the sister cities is, Kasimir says, "a beautiful job," and he sent his fondest greetings to Worthington (which he has visited four times, always hosted by GPSQ violinist Beth Habicht and her late husband, Don).

Johanneskirche, flavors of the street

Many AWCB members cited the Johanneskirche concert as the high point of the trip. It seemed each instrumentalist played from his/her heart, and at a level each was surprised to personally achieve.

"For sure, one of my favorite parts was playing in the Johanneskirche," said Vogt. "It was such an honor to play in a church with that history. It gave me chills."

The church, built from 1398 to 1440, was the only major Crailsheim building spared during the Allied bombing of 1945 as World War II drew to its close. Its organ, played by Karen Skog as part of three AWCB numbers, dates to 1709.

Karen Burns, mother of 16-year-old AWCB trumpeter Thomas Burns, was in the audience and observed, "The spirit of God was with the band in the church."

The rapt audience nearly filled the large space to capacity, and at the concert's close, gave such a long and sincere standing ovation that the band felt it would never end.

"It was definitely an emotional high spot," confirmed clarinetist Lois Kester, whose daughter, Elizabeth, 15, was also participating as a trombonist.

A lighter mood prevailed the following day at the AWCB's outdoor concert across from the Rathaus, but neither the band nor the audience was less enthusiastic. Following the concert, the city of Crailsheim treated the entire band to food and drink from street vendors in place for the Cultural Weekend.

Food, food and more food

An abundance of food was the rule for nearly all the Americans. Hosts plied their guests with spätzle, schnitzel and strudel, and individuals had no trouble acquiring plenty of bratwurst or spaghetti eis (ice cream made to look like a serving of spaghetti, complete with a sprinkling of "parmesan cheese" -- white chocolate shavings -- on top) from Crailsheim's food vendors.

Kevin Fleming, AWCB president and percussionist, was offered so much food by his generous hosts, Wolfgang and Simone Allet, that after a few days he begged them to stop.

"I had to tell them I just couldn't eat so much," laughed Fleming, after regular breakfasts of scrambled eggs, bacon, rolls, pretzels and more.

Sisters Darlene Rautenkranz (a trumpeter from Reading) and Mary Johnson (a flutist from Sherburn) were guests of Wolfgang and Sonja Hägele, and had a similar "problem." When the two protested they were gaining weight, an evening meal at the home of Elfrieda Kohr, where the four were dining, took a surprising twist.

Elfrieda, also known as "die Shokolade Frau," or "chocolate lady" for her habit of smilingly sharing baskets of chocolates on long bus rides, first presented Mary and Darlene with spare plates containing only a few blueberries, one strawberry and a dash of whipped cream.

"You said you needed something lighter," she joked, before producing a large bowl of homemade chocolate mousse, decorated with their names written in drizzled chocolate.

Many in the Worthington contingent sampled German beers and wines, including beer made at Crailsheim's own Engel brewery.

Roy Dirksen, grandfather of 16-year-old AWCB percussionist Caleb Dirksen, happily recalled a meal prepared for his family that included pork schnitzel with noodles and potato dumplings, followed by dessert comprised of fresh strawberries and peaches served with walnut ice cream and fresh whipped cream.

"The people were so friendly, and not just the host families," said Roy. "Once, a lady came up to us on the street, talked for awhile and then bought us pastries."

Expressed Kester in an understatement, "We walked a lot on the trip, but we all need to keep walking."

Day tripping

The AWCB and companions also hit the Autobahn a few times for longer day excursions to other German locales.

First on the list was Munich, with a large portion of the group opting to stop first at the concentration camp Dachau.

Of that sobering experience, Mary Johnson related, "It felt like someone punched me in the stomach."

After a few hours at Dachau, the entire group met again in Munich's Marienplatz, where the bustling city plaza offered lively entertainment, including street mimes and musicians. Most viewed Munich's signature Frauenkirche (twin-spired church) before heading off en masse to Munich's famed Hofbräuhaus for a round of food, beer and souvenir-buying.

Another day trip to Rothenberg -- a medieval walled city on the Tauber River -- was a winner, with guide and host Janice Langohr providing interesting historical detail before turning the crowd loose on the town.

A final shared journey was to the famed castle of Neuschwanstein, one of "Crazy" King Ludwig II's unique castles in Bavaria and the model for the Disneyland "Cinderella" castle. While most enjoyed the spectacle of the place, more remarkable was the scenery surrounding the structure. A short stop at the stunning Wieskirche ("white church") followed.

On other "free" days, some of the group visited nearby Langenberg or Dinkelsbühl, and another day offered the option of seeing Stuttgart, Nürnberg or Aalen.

Shared traditions

At the farewell dinner on July 26, the Crailsheim Country Squares (similar to Worthington's Turkey Trotters) danced, with the square dancers, led by former exchange student Roland Hilt, sending their best regards to their Worthington counterparts.

A delicious meal that included Crailsheim's Maultaschen and potato salad was enjoyed by all before Crailsheim's Buergerwache band played and speeches were delivered.

Mayor Michl thanked the host families and the dedicated local Crailsheim-Worthington committee for making the Worthington visit possible, noting the week had produced "great memories to last a lifetime."

Many past Crailsheim exchange students were part of the week, having either served as hosts or tour guides. The student exchange program, Michl confirmed, is the "underpinning" of the Worthington-Crailsheim relationship, and that it was a "joyful job" to welcome Kayli Kuhl, Worthington's 53rd exchange student to Crailsheim.

Upon giving a banner to the city, Jon Loy said he hoped the two cities would continue to share "the universal language of music for many years to come."

Speaking for all the Worthington guests, trumpeter Terry Morrison spontaneously interjected, "Most important is the people I've met. They are affectionate and wonderful and have made me feel very welcome and at home."

Summed Nordell, "That is what friends do."