Symphony scores: Oak Park-River Forest Symphony founder Gladys Welge and her "civic orchestra."Photos courtesy Ridgewood Publications

After 80 years of making music in local churches, the Oak Park Club and the auditorium of Oak Park and River Forest High School, the Symphony of Oak Park and River Forest has become the orchestra in residence at Lund Auditorium at Dominican University, 7900 W. Division in River Forest.

To open its season, the award-winning community orchestra will settle in and perform Strauss’ Don Quixote and Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G Minor on Oct. 16.

“For many years the Chicago Sinfonietta was in residence here at Dominican, and they made the decision this last year to move to a smaller venue further west,” says Donna Carroll, president of Dominican University. “So we had the opportunity in our scheduling this year, and the symphony was in its transition. They approached our director, had the discussion and we really felt that working together with them would be something good for the university, good for the orchestra and good for the community at large.”

Since its inception in 1931, the heart and soul of the Symphony of Oak Park and River Forest has been its loyal ensemble of dedicated volunteers, the on-call semi-pros, and the smattering of paid professionals. They come from many backgrounds, ranging in age from high school interns to retirees. Together, under the direction of their beloved conductors, the Symphony of OP-RF has grown Gladys Welge’s fledgling “Sunday School Orchestra” into the local icon it represents today.

Sounds of music

Elizabeth Rexford, a retired District 97 music teacher and a symphony member since 1973, initially chose to play the violin in order to sit next to a fifth-grade boy on whom she had a crush.

Her first love turned out to be symphonic music, but when Rexford, who also plays piano, was invited to join the symphony 39 years ago, she hadn’t played her violin for 11 years and was quite rusty.

“So I was in the back of the second violin section, and the more I played, the better and better I got,” she recalls. “This is one of the joys for us as orchestra players — to have the chance to develop the skills we have — and this is our chance to play in a wonderful orchestra. Actually, doing this has been the highlight of my life.”

Don Schmalz loved his violin but crushed it. Early on in his career as the D97 strings teacher, he accidentally left his prized fiddle on the floor of his parent’s garage, and in a hurry to get to a concert, backed the car over it. He still frets over it (so to speak). Without missing a beat (I’ll stop), his parents bought him a new Carl Becker and Sons violin, with which the former, but longtime concert master has been wowing symphony audiences for 46 years.

“I actually took private violin lessons with Gladys Welge for a while when I was quite young,” says Schmalz. “As I remember, she was a little formidable, a character with a gruff exterior, but a wonderful woman. It was really fun.”

Many top-flight conductors have swung the symphony baton over the last 80 years. Welge led from 1931 to 1954, followed by a brief appearance by George Dasch upon her retirement. In the wings was Milton Preves from 1955 to ’63, followed by several interims, then Perry Crafton for 28 years, and now Jay Friedman, who began in the 1995-’96 season.

In 1963, Douglas Staunton, 62, joined the symphony, having played the tuba since second grade. Three years after he joined the symphony, though, he took up strings and became the symphony’s principal bass player under Crafton. Staunton departed in 1996, returning only for the 2005-06 season.

“I liked band music OK, but I liked orchestra music better, and at the time, I only knew the bass clef,” says Staunton, one of the symphony’s card-carrying professional musicians since 1973. “When I joined, Milton Preves had walked out, and they were looking for a new music director, so I played with a whole bunch of conductors in my first three years, including Perry Crafton for the entire time he was there.”

Groundbreaking concert

“There was a big to do about Milton Preves,” Schmalz recalls. “At that time, Oak Park was not the affirmative-action, or diverse community it is now. Anyway, the story is that he brought in an African-American woman into the orchestra. The board reeled at it, there was a big stink and he quit over it.”

The young woman, Carol Anderson, who played in Preves’ other orchestra on the city’s North Side, sat in on several rehearsals because she wanted to learn one of the pieces the Oak Park-River Forest symphony was planning to play in early 1963. When the president of the symphony board, mistakenly assuming that Preves had recruited her to join the symphony, informed him that she would not be allowed, he insisted on it.

The resulting racial flap hit the media and caused quite a stir. Preves and Anderson performed the concert, officially integrating the symphony, but it was to be Preves’ (and Anderson’s) last. He resigned in protest.

The incident, however, was a watershed moment for Oak Park and River Forest, raising awareness and ushering in the open housing movement that led to Oak Park’s national reputation as a successfully integrated, racially diverse community.

A return to River Forest

In 1970, violinist Sister Mary Clemente Davlin, the second oldest member of the orchestra, joined the community orchestra.

“Years back, we played at Dominican once [then Rosary College] for a children’s concert. At the time, the stage was smaller and not big enough to hold the entire symphony, so we thought we would never try it again. Of course, the stage has been enlarged now,” she says.

Davlin’s most thrilling concert to date was playing Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, the “Symphony of a Thousand” at Orchestra Hall in 2010. This spring the orchestra will return to Symphony Center in Chicago (where Director Jay Friedman plays trombone as a member of the CSO) to perform Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, another challenging piece for chorus and orchestra, Rexford says.

Having bowed her violin 24 seasons under Crafton, and now for 16 years with Friedman, Sister Davlin describes Crafton as the perfect gentleman who could pull the music right out of his players, whereas Friedman has wonderful perception of the music, and knows exactly what he wants to hear and how to get it from each section.

“First we thought it was a special gift to violin players to have your conductor [Crafton] be first violin with the CSO, which is true,” says the professor emeritus at Dominican University. “But Jay, who is a principal trombonist with CSO now, is an extraordinary, world renowned brass player who really does understand strings. We are extremely fortunate in Oak Park and River Forest to play under these two men.”

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Deb Quantock McCarey

Deb Quantock McCarey is an Illinois Press Association (IPA) award-winning freelance writer who has worked with Wednesday Journal Inc. since 1995, writing features and special sections for all its publications....