July 21 2011 12:00 AM

Touring German youth orchestra smuggles big guns into the Midwest


When conductor Michael Klaue brings his
67-member Ahrensburg Youth Symphony from north Germany to the Midwest
this week, there will be more on his agenda than music making.

The group will play a big program of
orchestral music, from clarion blasts of Vivaldi to the United States
premiere of a major work by a little-known north German composer, at
East Lansing’s Ascension Lutheran Church Thursday.

But the enrichment runs both ways. Klaue
also looks forward to showing his students a different side of the
United States than the one they hear about in German media.

“The newspapers here do not always tell the truth about American life,” Klaue said.

The negative press in Germany runs from criticism of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to ordinary Americans’ eating habits.

“Many people here think that for breakfast, lunch and dinner you eat burgers, burgers and burgers,” Klaue said.

The orchestra’s tour of Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois is sponsored by Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp in Twin Lake.

Klaue said the students are especially
looking forward to a gig at Blue Lake and the chance to see Chicago,
Detroit and Milwaukee.

Uh — Milwaukee?

“There are many Harley Davidson fans in Germany,” Klaue pointed out.

The chance to stay with five different
host families along the way will change some minds about America, Klaue
said: “The open-mindedness of American host families is overwhelming.” 

Try getting 67 instruments, some of them with cases big enough to house a Newfoundland dog, through American customs.

“Once you are in the United States,
everything is very nice, very human, very friendly,” he said “The
problem for us (is) to get in.”

This year, the forwarding agency handling the orchestra’s essentials gave Klaue an extra hard time.

“They complained to me,” he said. “It’s
like we are verbrecher — criminals, terrorists, and we want to hurt the
United States of America.”

Once they get here, there will be some
explosive moments. The big gun Thursday is the world premiere of a
dramatic “Sinfonietta in Five Movements for Large Orchestra” by north
German composer Hans-Joachim Marx.

Marx wrote the symphony five years ago to celebrate the naming of his hometown, Stralsund, as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The music weaves old Lutheran hymns with
the heavy drama of 20th century composers like Shostakovich, Stravisky
and Hindemith, with a touch of impressionism from Debussy.

“It’s not really weird contemporary music, but it’s nice to hear and he’s always got an idea, a philosophy,” Klaue said.

Just when an idyllic violin solo begins
to lull the audience with Stralsund’s Medieval charms, there is a sudden
musical explosion, representing aerial bombardment from British Royal
Air Force in World War II.

“It blasts you out of your seat,” Klaue said.

The Ahresnburg Youth Orchestra was formed
in 1968, and Klaue has been the conductor since 1993. The musicians are
drawn from a school in the Ahrensburg area, north of Hamburg. Only half
the students at the school, selected by audition, get to go on the
American tour.

“They are highly motivated,” Klaue said.

When Klaue first came to Blue Lake 40
years ago, as a violin student in a German youth orchestra, he found
west Michigan’s terrain and climate similar to that of his native
northern Germany.

“Lake Michigan is just about the size of
our Baltic Sea,” Klaue said. “The seashore is much the same and the
slightly hilly landscape exactly the same as we have here.”

As his career in Germany progressed,
Klaue remained a “Blue Laker.” He came back many times as a counselor at
Blue Lake and hosted many American ensembles in Ahrensburg.

“I’ve experienced ups and downs in the
relationship between Germany and the United States for 40 years,” Klaue
said. “To go to the country and get to know the people, not the
politicians, is very nice."

Ben Baldus, the orchestra’s contact man
in Lansing, was the organist at Ascension Lutheran Church for 10 years.
Baldus hosts Klaue when he comes to Michigan and has visited Klaue’s
home in Ahrensburg several times.

Their last time together, Baldus and
Klaue notched 2,500 kilometers on a musical dream trip to historic
churches and organs in north Germany music history, once the stomping
grounds of Bach and other greats.

“He’s a very enthusiastic organ person,” Klaue said of Baldus. “Those are some old organs — 400, 500 years old.”

They went to Saxonia, where Bach supervised organ building, and visited Thomaskirche in Leipzig, where Bach was cantor.

Baldus called Klaue a “pretty decent organist.”

“I’m pretty, but I don’t play the organ,” Klaue countered.

He may not be a threat to America, but his English is dangerously good.

Ahrensburg Youth Orchestra
7 p.m. Thursday, July 21
Ascension Lutheran Church
2780 Haslett Rd., East Lansing
Reception to follow for musicians, audience and host families