Friedman finds a home in Oak Park

From trombone to conducting to cooking, life is a symphony

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By CATHRYN WILKINSON

Most men don't pull a tuxedo out of the closet when dressing for work, but Oak Parker Jay Friedman does just that. As principal trombone for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and music director of the Symphony of Oak Park & River Forest, Friedman earns his daily bread in coat and tails at classy arts events.

Behind the glimmer and the shiny shoes, Chicago-born Friedman is an ordinary thinking, feeling human being, although his achievements seem to launch him into a superior realm. By almost any standard, the prestigious chair that he has held more than 40 years at the CSO would suffice for a life well-lived, but Friedman has devoted himself to making music far beyond the CSO. His moonlighting with the OP-RF Symphony is but one of a slew of after-work activities. As a faculty member at Roosevelt University, he serves as principal guest conductor and chair of the Wind and Brass Department. And he maintains a private trombone studio in a restored vintage Victorian in Oak Park, for which he and his wife received a 2005 Historic Preservation Award and a spot on the 2006 Garden Walk.

Surprisingly, this world-renowned musician is better known to some in Oak Park for flowers and gingerbread trim than for music. Friedman admitted the time-worn truth that it is very difficult to gain recognition on your home turf. But what might be hidden to Oak Parkers was obvious enough to garner him a visiting post with the Italian Radio Orchestra next summer. He is eagerly expanding his Italian from crescendo and piano to everyday phrases in anticipation of concerts with Italy's largest orchestra in Turin in 2007.

Friedman took up conducting professionally rather late in his career, compared to the usual route to the podium. For him, the interpretation of a score relies on depth of musical experience, gained over a lifetime. A joke among his fellow musicians is that Friedman is like a clock, with his musicianship marked by a keen sense of timing. His timing was just right when the local symphony was hunting for a new music director in 1994, and Friedman just happened to be hunting for a position.

Symphony players have seen many changes during the 11 years since. According to Symphony Board President David Leehey, Friedman has ratcheted up the professional quality of the orchestra on all fronts.

One player commented, "When you play under him, you know you are working with a world-class musician. That says it all."

Leehey adds, "Not only is he able to convey world-class musicianship for the orchestra, but he's an exceptional fundraiser." Friedman has artfully combined his love of golf with his role as a key figure in keeping the symphony in the black. His annual "Brass Buddies" golf outings, where playing something other than music offers its own rewards, have netted the symphony more than $10,000.

During his tenure, the symphony has stabilized in terms of players and hosted soloists who would be the envy of an orchestra with half its budget. Most community orchestras such as this one would only dream of taking on today's challenging new music, but under Friedman's mile-high, can-do leadership, the ensemble is deeply involved in plans to commission and premiere a new work supported by a generous new sponsorship.

Friedman has not shied away from conducting some of the most difficult orchestral works in the repertoire-any of Mahler's symphonies, for example.

"I don't believe in dumbing down an orchestra to try to get audiences," he says. "That leads to a spiral of having to dumb it down more and more." While many orchestras are experimenting with venues, lights, movies, and other extra-musical add-ons, Friedman's best turn-outs in Oak Park have been for venerable choral/orchestral works-classics such as Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, which filled the house last season, and Mozart's Requiem, which is set for March 2007.

His vision and leadership gained the ensemble recognition as Community Orchestra of the Year by the Illinois Council of Orchestras in 2004.

And Dominican University President Donna Carroll called Friedman "the luminary-next-door, so to speak-a quiet man with an immense talent," when recognizing him with an honorary doctorate last spring at the close of his 10th and the symphony's 75th seasons.

So how does one man keep a demanding life like this together? Friedman says time in the kitchen is the best medicine after a stressful day of poring over scores, investing time with students, and practicing for the next CSO set. He is the main cook in his household. Even though his life has been steeped in the canon of Western art music, he loves exploring ethnic cuisines from other cultures.

"For me, cooking is great therapy."

And what does the local musical guru have on the menu for November's audiences? "Maestro's Favorites" is a sequence of symphonic movements from four different romantic-era symphonies, kind of like tapas, followed by tofu, and topped off with tiramisu-although Friedman admits he has enough "favorites" to fill up 10 programs.

Perhaps his most unusual choice is the scherzo from Rheinhold Gliere's Third Symphony, an epic tone poem based on the medieval Russian legend of Ilya of Murom. Friedman hopes some day to conduct the OP-RF musicians in the entire work, which he describes as "more than one hour of the greatest of late Russian Romanticism." Think Swan Lake with a sprinkling of Wagner thrown in.

One thing is for sure, Friedman will deliver a perfectly timed and carefully balanced reading of his favorites, which is a lot like being a good cook, albeit one wearing a tuxedo.

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