Church swings downbeat on Symphony of Oak Park and River Forest

80-year-old ensemble will perform elsewhere for the first time in eight years

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By Marty Stempniak

Staff Reporter

The Symphony of Oak Park-River Forest and First United Church of Oak Park, 848 Lake St., parted ways in December, in the middle of the concert season, and sent the local ensemble scrambling to find a new home. Their next concert will be performed at United Lutheran Church, 409 Greenfield, in Oak Park.

The 80-year-old symphony had spent the last eight years performing concerts at First United, but on Dec. 17, the church sent a letter saying that the relationship was over, and that the group had less than a month to remove its equipment.

In its letter, the church claimed the symphony's music director, Jay Friedman, was rude and disrespectful to First United staff members. The symphony, meanwhile, says it was unaware of any conflicts and is flabbergasted by the sudden ouster.

"I'd like to say that we're an artistic pillar of the community," said David Leehey, president of the symphony board. "We're pretty outraged about this."

The final straw occurred on Sunday, Dec. 12, according to the church's initial letter. Friedman was allegedly changing into his suit inside First United's nursery before a concert. A staffer allegedly told Friedman to leave, since he wasn't allowed in the room, and Friedman refused.

"We had already offered other rooms," wrote Judith Loevy, operations manager for the church. "This behavior is unacceptable to us, and we will no longer tolerate it."

Reached last week, Loevy referred questions to the church's pastor, Rev. Julie Harley. In an interview Jan. 28, Harley declined to comment on the alleged incident. The church's 15-member council met on two occasions and voted unanimously to end the relationship.

"What we'd like to say is simply that the relationship was not mutually beneficial, from the church's perspective," she said. "We wish the symphony much success in a future venue."

Friedman, a 48-year trombonist for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and 16-year music director for the symphony, denies that the incident took place. He, too, declined to get into the specifics of what happened.

"The reason for us being evicted is so ridiculous," Friedman said. "Never any warning, just in the middle of the season, you're out."

In her letter, Loevy said that the nursery "must be kept absolutely clean due to allergies and hygiene needs." After a plea from Leehey to reconsider, First United moderator Stuart Gillette reaffirmed the decision in a Jan. 12 letter.

"We value our staff," he wrote. "They work very hard and provide caring support to many organizations that carry on work within our building. They do not lightly raise complaints against our guests. When they do, however, and when those complaints come from not one but many employees — from pastors to janitors to secretarial staff — we take their concerns seriously. The problem with the symphony was not an isolated incident, but a pattern of bad behavior."

Both sides acknowledged that the symphony did not have a written lease in place. Rather they paid $900 to the church after each five-concert season (of which three remain), according to Harley. The symphony, however, believed it had an agreement, verbally and through e-mail, to stay through the end of the season on May 8. Leehey said the board contemplated filing a lawsuit in the dispute.

"It's not that easy to find a home for a couple hundred musicians," he said. "You need a big space, and we've gone through over a dozen venues and been turned down by all of them."

The symphony's board of directors issued a statement on Sunday, voicing their support for Friedman and disappointment over the eviction.

"For the church to have made a summary judgment without ever having voiced a complaint is baffling," the board wrote. "First United Church has been a beautiful venue for us for the past eight years, and we will treasure the memories of our rich association. They continue to do much good in the community. We wish them well."

"As an Oak Park citizen," Leehey was scheduled to meet Tuesday morning with members of First United's staff, after Wednesday Journal's deadline. He said last week that he doubted anything would change following the get-together. But in the meantime, Leehey announced last week that they've moved their upcoming concert on Feb. 20 to United Lutheran Church.

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Posted: March 4th, 2011 9:20 PM

Frankly, I'm not surprised by this. The Symphony also uses Concordia University's Band Room as a rehearsal space, they leave the room trashed every week. After having worked with them for the Mahler production last year, I have found most of the members and Mr. Friedman to be fairly rude. Being an "established" group doesn't give you an excuse for disrespecting other people and their spaces.


Posted: February 5th, 2011 9:55 AM

I have played with the symphony under Maestro Friedman. He is a great musician and the orchestra is a great institution; HOWEVER, I've experienced firsthand that this conductor can be a mean-spirited, abusive bully who can be condescending and humiliating to orchestra personnel. This is also well known in the wider community of musicians. The orchestra has an "abuse committee" to keep tabs on this behavior. As for who was off base in this scenario with the church, I'd bet it wasn't the church.

Chris Goode from Oak Park  

Posted: February 1st, 2011 4:55 PM

I think we are hearing in this discussion why it came to this point from both sides. Perhaps we can all learn to behave better. But perhaps not.

Art Faye  

Posted: February 1st, 2011 3:21 PM

Member, the church also had 8 years to come up with common ground rules. Your council should be ashamed of themselves for they are in denial, and they are the real problem. So many enjoyed the orchestra, but a few power mongering hypocrites could not be civil and fix what is disagreed on so the show could go on..Sick little monkeys


Posted: February 1st, 2011 8:28 AM

The orchestra had 8 years to solve their problems considering they were always unkind and that we as the church told them frequently that the behavior displayed was unacceptable! The problems did exist and unfortunately the orchestra refused to solve them. Period. I am sorry that they can no longer play at our church because they are a great orchestra, but being good at something does not give you the right to be mean.

a musician from Oak Park  

Posted: February 1st, 2011 7:22 AM

Mr Ferguson--maybe the church in general valued the symphony, but the power structure did not. The orchestra board DID request a meeting and was turned down. No warning notice, no meeting, no chance to resolve the issues.


Posted: January 31st, 2011 11:19 PM

@Nice, if people could legitimately sue over that this paper'd be shut down long ago. Besides you'd have to prove it wasn't true which I'm sure I could line up people, especially now, to support those statements so save yourself the money and spend it on some people skill building classes.


Posted: January 31st, 2011 11:14 PM

Oak Park has an "elite religious sector"? Are they willing to support ending tax exempt status for religious organizations? Believe all you can believe but don't allow others to carry the freight. That's unfair.

Art Faye  

Posted: January 31st, 2011 3:53 PM

The churches staff and council are showing their true colors. Why not admit that you have another agenda for the space instead of blaming other peoples behavior. Typical behavior of oak parks elite religious sector. Sad little Monkeys.

Anonymous, hehe  

Posted: January 31st, 2011 2:52 PM

So Nice (Ya,...riiight), You honestly think you should be able to sue someone for stating that you have zero people skills and are difficult to get along with? That is moronic logic. Uh oh!

Thomas Ferguson from Oak Park  

Posted: January 31st, 2011 1:12 PM

There can be no question that the church, in general, valued having the orchestra use the church. There should also be no doubt that the church was in no hurry to sever the relationship but did so because an intolerable situation developed and persisted. So, the leadership of the orchestra should ask the church to meet and review the entire agreement, detail by detail, with added termination language.Oak Park is waiting. All for one, one for all. Ferg


Posted: January 31st, 2011 9:36 AM

As an orchestra member, I was disappointed by this news. I am always careful to clean up after myself, leaving the space the same as I found it. I thought the other members did the same. And we only used the rooms opened to us. I wish there had been more discussion and perhaps this could have been avoided. It's a shame to leave a beautiful space, but I won't play where I am not wanted.


Posted: January 31st, 2011 9:03 AM

@Pat -- No, I whine about people anonymously libeling others. Post your surname, so that Ms. Loevy can know whom to sue.


Posted: January 30th, 2011 9:26 PM

I posted my name and true experiences. You posted anonymously and then whine about anonymous posting. Doh?!?


Posted: January 30th, 2011 3:50 PM

Re: Pat's comment. Anonymous libel? Is that what the WJ is supporting now?


Posted: January 30th, 2011 11:22 AM

Ms. Loevy is an extremely difficult person to get a long with and has 0 people skills. First United may be a "pillar" of the community but it puts bad faith in letting a person like her deal with the public. Anyone that's dealt with her will know what I'm talking about.

muriel schnierow from River Forest  

Posted: January 30th, 2011 9:45 AM

i have commented on the excellence of our Symphony as an artistic treasure and on Maestro Friedman as an extremely talented musician. In no way would i suggest that the report of inappropriate behavior go unnoticed. If the reports are true an apology is in order.


Posted: January 30th, 2011 8:08 AM

The reputation of First United, which among other things runs the OPRF Food Bank and provides extensive services for the homeless, is intact. I wish the Lutheran church good luck and suggest that the symphony clean up its act before they run out of venues to play at. Being an "artistic pillar of the community" does not excuse bad behavior.

Guy Corl from Oak Park  

Posted: January 29th, 2011 3:08 PM

We'd all like to think of the church as existing above our lowly human nature. It is, in fact, an ideologically empowered group of real human people. People who, for whatever reason, will simply not tolerate the remaining 12 hours of the Symphony season. My belief, such as it is, remains strictly in the music. Music which introduced my family and i to Rev. Harley's beautiful church eight years ago, Music which will endure in finding homes in the hearts of the real people in our community

Bobbie Raymond from Oak Park  

Posted: January 29th, 2011 12:26 PM

Jay Friedman is a highly recognized musician of the Chicago Symphony -- one of the best orchestras in the world. We are fortunate to get a conductor who has worked with the greatest and attracts some of them as soloists. If anything was said before a performance that was construed inappropriate there should have been some understanding from the church employee that later might be a better time to discuss it. Not before a performance. Creative people are then in a different state of mind.

A Neighbor - final thought  

Posted: January 29th, 2011 9:09 AM

Miss Raymond is correct, in that this is a "he said, she said" event. However, did not the two boards have an iron-clad lease, setting forth their mutual obligations? If so, First United has broken the lease...mid-season. Further, did the church put in writing its concerns and offer a chance to remediate them? It will take some time for First United to repair its heretofore fine reputation.

Oak Parker  

Posted: January 29th, 2011 3:28 AM

(CONT'D) equipment without any care in the world leaving the beautiful wood floors of the church marked and scratched! I cannot believe it took this long for the church to finally say enough but I am glad they did! You cannot use someones facilities and then go in and cause chaos! It just doesnt work like that! I dont care how "Magical" the symphony is, you cannot be that great with an attitude like this!

Oak Parker  

Posted: January 29th, 2011 3:26 AM

I have personally witnessed problems with the Symphony for many many years in that church. One example being that the church had made it very clear that the normal rehearsal space was unavailable due to a worship practice but they could use any other room in the church that they wanted too. When the conductor arrived (after being informed of the problem weeks in advance) he was outraged using many explitives to our pastor and in front of a group of 50 children! Also they move around their

A citizen of Oak Park from Oak Park  

Posted: January 28th, 2011 10:04 PM

I agree with a neighbor from Oak Park that this is a public relations disaster for First United and a kudo for United Lutheran. The Board of Directors of the Symphony knew nothing about any perceived problems until the eviction notice arrived by mail. A subsequent request from the Board for a meeting with the church council was refused.

Bob from OP from Oak Park  

Posted: January 28th, 2011 8:55 PM

Sorry. If the Maestro was as talented as alleged, he wouldn't be conducting in churches for $10 a head!

Bobbie Raymond from Oak Park  

Posted: January 28th, 2011 8:50 PM

This is quite a story of the "he said, she said" variety. Let me first state that I have had a long and great relationship with both institutions -- the Housing Center opened its first office in 1972 in free space at First United -- then First Congregational Church. And I have been a long-time supporter and audience member of the Symphony. The excellent conductor has built the audience with great soloists and programming> Let's hope that this decision will be reconsidered.

A neighbor from Oak Park  

Posted: January 28th, 2011 7:53 PM

There is plenty of space in First United for symphony members to change clothes...compromise should have been easy. Apparently the two Boards of Directors did not sit down and work things out. In the middle of the season? A public relations disaster for First United. Good for the Lutheran church!

op rex  

Posted: January 28th, 2011 6:42 PM

true christian spirit of tolerance displayed by first united. rather embarrassing for them.

Liz R. from Oak Park  

Posted: January 28th, 2011 4:21 PM

Muriel: You are correct about our orchestra - - it's treasure! The orchestra's performances have continued to thrill and enchant audiences, under the leadership of Jay Friedman. Surely this eviction could have been avoided with a little more communication on both sides.

Marty Berg from Oak Park  

Posted: January 28th, 2011 4:07 PM

I believe Ms Schnierow missed the point of the article. The church is evicting the symphony; that has nothing to do with the status of Mr.Friedman, who presumably will still conduct the orchestra.

E.A.H. from Oak Park  

Posted: January 28th, 2011 4:03 PM

Moving to the Lutheran church could be dangerous...I mean...the coffee hour in the middle of intermission is going to be a killer! Seriously...Sounds like both parties weren't communicating. United Lutheran has lovely acoustics...and is equally as impressive of a venue, though I've never seen why they can't perform at OPRF or another local venue with an actual auditorium.


Posted: January 28th, 2011 3:55 PM

It's a shame that the issues could not be worked out, but having worked with diva artists before, I can understand how the church finally just had enough.

muriel schnierow from River Forest  

Posted: January 28th, 2011 3:24 PM

i cannot comment on difficulties between individuals.I can say that the Symphony of Oak Park-River Forest is a community treasure and cannot be replaced. Maestro Friedman is a highly gifted musician and a marvel for Oak Park-River Forest. We will not find a conductor of this caliber again. Sincerely, Muriel Schnierow

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