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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