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By Megan Dooley
The following interview was conducted on Aug. 13 with Jay Friedman, music director of the Symphony of Oak Park-River Forest; David Leehey, president of the board of directors; and Carole Benson, symphony chorus member and member of the board of directors.
On the orchestra's origins
David Leehey: We started in 1931. We're one of the oldest continually operating community orchestras in the nation. Some may have started earlier but they quit for a while. We have been continually operating since '31. The original music director was a woman, Gladys Welge. She directed the orchestra until 1954.
On the move to Dominican University
Jay Friedman: We needed a concert hall rather than a church. And there is no Performing Arts Center in Oak Park, which is a real shame. I mean, there is no venue here for arts.
Leehey: Various organizations have wanted to have a performing arts center that would be for music and plays, theater, dance, but it's never happened. But there was one over at Dominican. There were reasons why we never really thought that we could go over there before, namely cost and the size. It's not very large. But they've expanded the stage, so now it's big enough for a full symphony orchestra. Everything just kind of came together. We needed a home.
When all the uproar occurred last year with First United Church, United Lutheran Church, 409 Greenfield, welcomed us with open arms and we had three performances up there last spring [that] were very well attended and they could not have been nicer to us. We want to thank them. We feel a little bad that we're leaving, but it was not a conducive venue because, again, it's a church. We had to pull out pews, rows and rows of pews, for every concert and put all sorts of risers up. It was a lot of work to put on a concert whereas at Dominican, it's a performance hall. We don't have to do all this work to get it ready so we can do a performance.
Jay and I had a meeting with Donna Carroll, the president, and Leslie Rodrigues, manager of DUPAC [Dominican University Performing Arts Center] last spring. Initially I approached them because we were looking for a place for our final three concerts last year. They were very interested in having us because serendipitously, Chicago Sinfonietta used to perform there, but they moved out to Naperville.
The orchestra rehearses every Wednesday night at Concordia University.
On the new space
Leehey: It holds about 1,200, which will be plenty for our concerts. We have had a few overflowing audiences at the churches. We don't know if our audience will expand because we have a bigger and more prominent venue. Most likely, we'll have plenty of seats.
Friedman: The acoustics are excellent there. They have an acoustic shell, which is set up for an orchestra. A church isn't a concert hall obviously. A lot of time in churches, you might have a nice acoustic, but there's not enough room to set up an orchestra. Very few churches have enough room for an 80- to 90-piece symphony orchestra.
We just won the Orchestra of the Year Award from the Illinois Council of Orchestras. No community orchestra as far as I know had ever tackled [Mahler's Symphony No. 8]. Only the biggest orchestras in the world do that piece because it's physically demanding, it's size demanding, it's technically demanding and it's musically demanding. It took nine stagehands at Orchestra Hall to set up for that thing.
Leehey: It was first performed, by the way, 100 years prior to our performance. That was one of the reasons we did it; it was the centennial. It was first performed in 1910 in Vienna [and] dubbed "Symphony of a Thousand" because they actually did have almost 1,000 people performing it. When people perform it now, you don't perform with that many because you can't fit them unless it's outdoors.
Friedman: We had almost 400 with everybody.
Leehey: We're a community orchestra, and we're proud of it. So we won that award, and then Jay won the Conductor of the Year Award.
Friedman: [Winning both] usually doesn't happen.
On the upcoming Symphony Gala
Carole Benson: The most exciting and wonderful thing about this group is that it's such a cohesive community of people who love orchestral music, love to sing it, love to play it, love to be part of it. People participate in all kinds of ways. I'm on the board now and that's a privilege as well. Since I'm a relatively new member, I was really surprised to find out that there hadn't already been some big benefit fundraiser effort since most organizations have that sort of thing.
Leehey: We struggle, like every arts organization, to get money. And we do get a small amount from the Illinois Arts Council. But arts funding has gone down with the change in the economy so the amounts we've gotten from Illinois Arts Council and Oak Park Arts Council have fallen in recent years. They still both support us, so I don't want to be negative, but it isn't a lot.
And we have private donors [and grants]. A lot of the people on the board and in the orchestra donate and various people in the community. Ticket sales only account for about one quarter of our revenue. Then we have advertisers, an ad book, which is our concert program and we put inserts in the middle.
Benson: We're very excited about the gala. It is a wonderful opportunity to throw one giant party. We have a lot to celebrate. The symphony is 80 years old, we got these two great awards, we got to perform at Orchestra Hall — and again in the coming season.
We're [holding the gala] at the Carleton Hotel on Sept. 17 — cocktails, dinner, a really lovely dinner, dancing, a big band orchestra. We hope people will think Fred and Ginger and dress to the nines. A lot of the music will be that era, the '30s, '40s. And there will be a ballroom dance exhibition. I'm a ballroom dancer myself. I've got friends who are ballroom dancers who are going to come and perform.
Friedman: Her brother has a big orchestra, a really good '40s style. It's a great group.
Benson: It's kind of a swing orchestra [the Robert Benson Orchestra]. He gave us a nice discount on the price since we had no budget. We were trying to keep expenses to a minimum. Since it's the first, hopefully, of many such gala events, we are really knocking ourselves out to do it right. It should be a fabulous party.
People can buy tickets by going through our website or you can call me [708-261-7181; tickets, which cost $150, include dinner, drinks, etc.]
There's also a silent auction. We worked out a wonderful arrangement with Oak Park Jewelers and they donated incredible cluster stud diamond earrings. Seven each. They look like the size of two karats on each ear but in fact the total weight is one karat. They're set in white gold. If anyone makes a donation to the symphony of $20, they'll be part of this diamond giveaway drawing.
On this year's first concert program
Friedman: I've been wanting to do the Strauss Don Quixote, and I got the principal cellist of the CSO as the soloist. He and Yo-Yo Ma are my two favorite cellists.
Benson: Because of Jay's connection to the CSO, we're very fortunate in Oak Park that we get this caliber musician to come and perform with us.
On Jay Friedman's background
Friedman: I've been in the CSO since 1962. I had a professional orchestra in 1990 and '91 down in the Joliet area, called River Cities Philharmonic, that lasted for two years. That was an all-professional orchestra. I was also the resident conductor of the Chicago Chamber Orchestra, which has been around since the '40s.
This will be my 50th year in the CSO. I teach at the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University [professor of trombone].
Leehey: He's been principal trombone of the Chicago Symphony since 1965.
Friedman: I started [playing] in fifth grade, in a military school. I was 9 years old and the band director said, "You see that horn on the wall? It was a baritone horn. It looked like a little tuba. He said, "I need somebody to play that," and that's how I started. I wanted to play trombone or trumpet or some famous instrument, but he said, "I need somebody to play that."
So I played that until I graduated from high school. We had a meeting of a bunch of kids who were graduating and the counselor asked everybody, "What are you planning to do, what career?" They all said phys-ed teacher. I thought to myself, I'm not going to be a physical education teacher. I mean, I loved sports, but I was a little skinny kid. Let's see now, what do I know? Music, that's it. I'm going to have to go into music. So I had to change instruments. I started playing the trombone when I went into college. Four years later I got into the CSO. I practiced 10 hours a day. I had no social life. I was afraid to ask girls out.