I had the distinct privilege of witnessing history with the Symphony of Oak Parl-River Forest on Monday, April 19. A community orchestra, conducted by a gifted, world-class musician in Jay Friedman, put on a truly memorable performance of one of the greatest, most challenging and otherwise impractical works in all of the orchestral literature.
Mahler's 8th Symphony calls for a huge orchestra that requires a large string orchestra, supplemented by two piccolos, English horn, bass-clarinet, e-flat clarinet, contrabassoon, eight French horns, two harps, celesta, organ, piano, harmonium, mandolin, an auxiliary brass band, seven vocalist soloists, mixed choir of 200 souls supplied by the Symphony Chorus and the
Oak Park-River Forest Children's Chorus. What a combination.
Accompanying me were five students from Knox College. The program notes mentioned that this magnificent work had not been performed by our famed Chicago Symphony since 1980. And here we were in Chicago's gem, Symphony Center, with a community orchestra, choruses, and a member of the CSO bringing us the rare and unique joy of not only witnessing history in the making, but hearing a work rarely attempted by one of the most proficient and financially viable professional orchestras in the world!
A large audience filled the hall with anticipation, awaiting 90 minutes of pure Mahlerian genius. Filling the performance arena were over 300 members of the Oak Park community and surrounding cities. Think about it: one's next door neighbors, one's friends, one's relatives performing in one of the greatest musical and technical masterpieces ever created. And all of this on a budget of pennies by comparison with professional organizations that rarely if ever attempt such a display of programming due to the technical mastery required and the finances necessary to make such an event affordable.
As a member of the Illinois Arts Council Panel for Music that adjudicates orchestras, chamber ensembles, choruses and opera, I have some knowledge of what is going on in performance around our great state. In no uncertain terms, the performance of Mahler's "Symphony of a Thousand" by the Symphony of Oak Park-River Forest was exemplary by performance standards, given the resources at hand, and remarkable for any organization, no matter its size or budget.
Having had the privilege of twice guest conducting this symphony, I can say that my time spent with its talented musicians, some of whom have been in the orchestra for over 30 years, left me feeling humble and gratified that we could walk the path of making great music together.
In sum, it is my opinion that Oak Park and River Forest were represented by the highest standards of musical integrity, vision and courage. Their neighbors and friends were treated to history in the making. Maestro Jay Friedman demonstrated that one can make a difference.
Bruce Polay is chairman of the music department at Knox College in Galesburg and the artistic director and conductor of the Knox-Galesburg Symphony. This year, the Illinois Council of Orchestras named Polay the state's Conductor of the Year.