Music, they say, is one of the international languages, understood and spoken by people everywhere regardless of race, color or nation of origin.
For students in the McLean High School Symphonic Orchestra, that theory will become a week-long experiment, as they host a group of approximately 50 students from Detmold, Germany as part of a musical exchange program.
The program began more than 10 years ago when the McLean Orchestra was under the direction of Bettina Skard.
“She was from Germany and had a friend in Detmold,” said Gretta Sandberg, the school’s current director. “She remembered that the orchestra there was always really good and thought it might be interesting to take our students there as an exchange program.”
The first trip took place in 1994, with McLean students performing at various venues in Detmold, but not with the German students, members of the Detmolder Jungendorchester at the Christian-Dietrich-Grabbe-Gymnasium, a magnet school for the arts and sports.
In 1995, when Sandberg took over the baton from Skard, parents told her how important they thought it was to maintain the relationship with Jochim Bergmann, the Detmold conductor at the time.
“I suggested the next time we worked together, the students should perform together, and it worked out splendidly. It was a great success,” Sandberg said.
The last time the schools performed together was in Germany in 2003, shortly before the beginning of the current war in Iraq, which led to Fairfax County’s ban on international travel for school groups.
If the group were to return to Germany before the ban is lifted, it would have to be done without the official backing of the school, she said.
The McLean students are “jumping out of their skin” as the exchange program looms ever closer, she said.
“Some of the kids in the top orchestra told me they heard about this program when they were in elementary school,” Sandberg said. “They told me they decided then that they wanted to play an instrument in the orchestra so they could participate in the exchange program. This is a big carrot that’s been in front of their noses for years, and they’re just so excited about it.”
THE MUSICAL SELECTIONS for the combined concert on May 18 will include pieces from Beethoven, Schubert, Copland and Strauss, chosen through e-mail discussions between Sandberg and Udo Monks, current director of the Detmold orchestra. The Copland piece will feature guest vocalist Lewis Freeman, who just happens to be married to Sandberg.
Although she was a little nervous about the collaboration when she started her position, Sandberg said she is as anxious to meet the German students as the McLean musicians.
“When you do something together in an intense situation, the bonding is incredible,” she said, adding that there has been “a love affair” between a McLean student and a Detmold student since the trip in 2003.
“Music has always provided an avenue to get to know people in other countries and travel. Once I did the first trip, I realized it was something the students shouldn’t miss,” she said.
The students will arrive at school together every day for the six days in McLean, she said, and during the concert, there will be one student from each school sharing a music stand, to further promote unity and understanding.
While in McLean, the German students and their chaperones will be staying with families from the school’s orchestra program.
Cathy and Bill Smith, along with their cellist daughter Starlet, will be hosting a 15-year-old girl from Germany who plays violin.
“People are really getting anxious about it,” Starlet said. As an only child, she’s looking forward to having someone around her home to learn from and play music.
“I think it’ll be really fun to do,” she said of hosting the girl. “It’ll be neat learning about their history. I’m anxious to learn what they do differently there that we don’t do here.”
The girls have already become Internet pen pals, Cathy Smith said.
“The more we thought about it, it seemed like a good opportunity for our whole family,” she said. “It’s a learning experience. We need to open our minds as much as we expect our child to have an open mind about other cultures and people.”
The possibility of heading to Germany herself in the future is one not missed by Starlet.
“I’d love to go to Germany,” she said. Also, having been a host family, she will already know someone to stay with, one of the reasons she is excited about the upcoming exchange program.
“I’ll get to meet a new friend and musician and get to learn about their country,” she said.
Smith said she is willing to send Starlet to Germany if the chance arises, but also sees the immediate benefits for the program.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for her because it opens the door to her to have someone to stay with over there,” she said. “She’s going to learn so much from this.”
One request she has already received from her exchange student is for ethnic food.
“We’re not really sure what that means,” Smith said with a laugh. “She’s also a vegetarian. There’s a lot of vegetarians on the trip but only a few vegetarian families here, so we’re hoping to collaborate with some families to get ideas for dinners,” she said.
During the school day, the exchange students will take trips in Washington, D.C. to visit the Smithsonian, the Lincoln Memorial and the White House and have a special audience at the German Embassy. During the evenings, they will be able to spend time with their host families, Smith said.
Janet DuBose and her son Brad, a sophomore violinist who began playing in fourth grade, will also be hosting two students from Germany during the exchange.
“One plays a double bass and the other plays violin,” Brad said. “I’m really excited about the opportunity to perform with the students from Germany.”
The orchestra Brad plays in consists entirely of string instruments, but the German group includes woodwinds and brass instruments, which changes the type of music they will be playing in the concert.
Although he is not sure what he and his family will be doing with the exchange students once they arrive, Brad said he would like to “show them D.C. and the Capitol.”
“I’d definitely want to go to Germany if I had the chance,” he said, adding that he has only been to Europe once. “I’ve always wanted to go there.”
“This is a big thing for us. He’s going to have a couple people staying here from a different culture,” said DuBose. “We’re looking forward to it.”
The concert will be held at the Craighill S. Burks Theater in McLean High School on Wednesday, May 18 starting at 7:30 p.m., she said. The musicians and their families will have a potluck dinner before the concert, and the students will stay in McLean until May 20.
“We’re really hoping to have a trip to Germany next year,” she said, adding that the trips are typically held every other year. “We want to make sure we continue this relationship.”
McLean High School Principal Paul Wardinski, who was born in Germany and went to elementary school there, said he is looking forward to his first exchange concert.
The McLean orchestra is made up of a small group of students, so the anticipation for the German students may be downplayed a little throughout the rest of the school.
“The orchestra is such a select group here that when the [German] students come to class on Friday, the excitement will build for next week’s concert,” he said. “I’m very impressed with this program. It says something that the program has survived a changeover of both directors from both schools.”
He is pleased to offer his students a chance to meet with musicians from another part of the world. “We’re all very excited about this concert. We hope people come out and see some great entertainment.”