Symphony of Oak Park and River Forest awarded by Illinois Council of Orchestras

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By Evan O'Brien

Content Manager

Provided by the Symphony of Oak Park and River Forest

On April 3, the Symphony of Oak Park and River Forest performed its choral concert in its new venue at United Lutheran Church, 409 Greenfield, to a packed house.

Among the audience was the Illinois Council of Orchestra's President, Perry Fisher, who presented the Symphony with two of the council's most prestigious awards. Fisher presented the Symphony of Oak Park and River Forest's Board President, Dr. Dave Leehey, with the Orchestra of the Year Award. Symphony Conductor, Jay Friedman, was also presented with the council's Conductor of the Year Award.

The awards were arrived at by a panel of judges from the council and outside arts organizations who reviewed the nominations for orchestras all across Illinois.

The following are the reasons The Symphony of Oak Park andand River Forest received these 2011 awards:

Illinois Council of Orchestra's Conductor of the Year Award

For the past 16 years, Jay Friedman has been the Music Director and Conductor of the Symphony of Oak Park and River Forest. During this time, Jay has been principal trombone of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Professor and Head of the Wind and Brass Department at Roosevelt University School of Music.

Friedman's dedication and inspiration as a conductor is the principal reason the SYMPHONY of Oak Park and River Forest continues to perform at such a high level of excellence. Under his leadership, the SYMPHONY has progressed from a local community orchestra performing many of its concerts at the local high school to a near-professional quality orchestra that performed Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand in April 2010 at Orchestra Hall to outstanding reviews. These accomplishments are even more remarkable in view of Maestro Friedman's commitment to maintaining the Symphony's status as a true community orchestra, with most of its members unpaid volunteers drawn from the local community. According to symphony board president, Dr. David Leehey "The board of directors and orchestra are unanimous in believing the Symphony has achieved heights that were unthinkable when Maestro Friedman took the reins as Conductor 16 years ago."

Innovation in programming and soloist selection

The Music Director has been responsible for bringing to the Symphony community very wide-ranging and challenging repertory. Beginning in 2002, the Symphony has performed all but two of the Mahler symphonies, culminating in 2010 with a performance of Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand in Orchestra Hall to a nearly full house of over 1500. Comments of reviewers included: "Kudos to Friedman, the orchestra's management and all involved for their can-do spirit in not only attempting to scale Mahler's massive symphony but doing so successfully" (Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review) and "Maestro Jay Friedman demonstrated that one can make a difference" (Bruce Polay, Chairman, Music Department, Knox College). Another highlight of their recent seasons have been performances of "Maestro's Favorites" concerts, featuring four of Maestro Friedman's favorite symphonic movements from four different symphonies arranged to create a new "symphony".

Because of his prominent role in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as principal trombone for nearly the past half century, Jay Friedman has been able to bring the Symphony outstanding principal soloists including Chris Martin, trumpet (twice), David McGill, bassoon, Mathieu Dufour, flute, Robert Chen, violin, and John Sharp, cello. Most importantly, he was able to recruit Charles Pikler, principal viola of the CSO, to be concertmaster three years ago. The string section, virtually all of the players unpaid volunteers from the community, responded in a fashion that was truly remarkable to behold. Very difficult music became eminently playable under Charlie's tutelage and Jay's direction.

Personal Involvement in the Community

Jay Friedman has been a hands-on conductor who has worked tirelessly not only as a musician and conductor but also as a fundraiser and supporter of music in the community. For the past several years, he has organized an arranged a "Brass Buddies" golf outing, with an auction of brass instruments and other items featured, with all proceeds going to support the orchestra. He has enthusiastically conducted outreach concerts in neighboring communities such as Riverside and Cicero (the latter being the aforementioned Mexican outreach concert) as well as annual family concerts in conjunction with a local dance troupe, MOMENTA. Moreover, Jay opens his house every year for an open house celebration that is open to all members and guests of our local music-loving community

Relationship with Musicians and Board

Jay has been undoubtedly the most respected music director in the history of the symphony. If the musicians needed any reminder of what they could accomplish under his direction after the performance of Mahler Symphony No. 8 in Orchestra Hall last April, they again rose to the occasion performing the difficult Sibelius Tapiola at the season's final concert. With only one month rehearsal time, Jay guided an initially very dubious orchestra from trying to read a seemingly unreadable score to performing it with such aplomb that the audience cheered! Rehearsals under Maestro Friedman can be long and demanding, but the results make all of it more than worthwhile.

Jay and the Board have an outstanding working relationship. Jay personally attends all the board meetings, where he gives his music director's report and actively participates in all aspects of the meeting. His enthusiastic fundraising efforts have been much appreciated. According to Board President, David Leehey, "Jay never acts as if the board is there to raise funds for him and the orchestra, but personally rolls up his sleeves, planning and running fundraisers and helping to assure the fiscal strength of the organization".

Quality of Performances

Maestro Daniel Barenboim, who played the Emperor Concerto under Jay's direction with the RAI Orchestra in Italy, possibly gave the most telling endorsement of the Symphony and its community orchestra mission, when, upon listening to a CD of Wagner recorded by the Symphony of Oak Park and River Forest, excitedly exclaimed "These are amateurs? Amateurs!".

As mentioned earlier, comments of reviewers of the Orchestra Hall performance of Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand included: "Kudos to Friedman, the orchestra's management and all involved for their can-do spirit in not only attempting to scale Mahler's massive symphony but doing so successfully" (Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review) and "Maestro Jay Friedman demonstrated that one can make a difference" (Bruce Polay, Chairman, Music Department, Knox College). Just one month later, at the last concert of the 2009-2010 season, an excited patron wrote a letter to the newspaper, stating "The symphony is one of the most exciting stars in Oak Park's crown".

Illinois Council of Orchestra's Orchestra of the Year Award


Under the leadership of its Music Director, Jay Friedman, the Symphony is dedicated to performing the very best of orchestral music. Under Maestro Friedman's leadership, the quality of the music making and the difficulty of the repertory have continued to increase. The Symphony has now performed all but two of the Mahler symphonies. Culminating this Mahler cycle, the Symphony No. 8 (Symphony of a Thousand) was performed in Orchestra Hall in April 2010 to a nearly full house. It is believed that this is the first true community orchestra in Illinois to have made this kind of commitment to music of this difficulty and scope. Comments of reviewers included: "Kudos to Friedman, the orchestra's management and all involved for their can-do spirit in not only attempting to scale Mahler's massive symphony but doing so successfully" (Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review).

The orchestra's opening concert of the 2009-2010 season was repeated as an outreach program in the Hispanic community (many of whom were new to classical music) and consisted of works by Mexican and Spanish composers as well as Beethoven Symphony No. 5. The orchestra presents a choral concert every year, with performances of some of the great choral masterpieces; last year performing the Beethoven Ninth Symphony just two months before the aforementioned Mahler Eighth Symphony. These are arguably the two greatest choral symphonies ever composed! Other works performed during the 2009-2010 season included the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante with CSO's Baird Dodge, violin and violist Jennifer Marlas, and the Bach Brandenburg Concerto No.4 with concertmaster Charles Pikler playing violin and daughter Amy playing recorder. The winner of the 6th Annual Concerto Competition, Oak Park High School violinist Kiyoshi Hayashi, violin, was featured at the Family Concert in January, and Cliburn finalist Di Wu played the Prokofiev Third Piano Concerto at the final May concert.

Community Involvement/Outreach

The Symphony has been an important part of the Tri-Village (Oak Park-River Forest-Forest Park) community since its founding in 1931. It welcomes the participation of all members of the community regardless of age, race, gender, education or disability. The Symphony partners with Momenta Performing Arts Company, a dance troupe made up of students at the Academy of Movement in Music, each year at the Family Concert. Last year, they joined the Symphony at the Family Concert in performances of Liadov's Enchanted Lake and Rimsky-Korsakov's The Golden Cockerel. The Symphony Chorus, under the direction of William Chin, participated in the Beethoven's Ninth Symphony this past season. Not only the Symphony Chorus but also the Oak Park and River Forest Children's Chorus as well as two choruses from local Concordia University performed in the Mahler concert. Symphony members have given open rehearsals at various venues in the tri-village area, including the Oak Park Avenue Association, Oak Park Public Library, and a number of arts stores in Forest Park. SOPRF shares its mailing lists with many area arts organizations and provides complimentary tickets to numerous community organizations to use in their fundraising events. Collaboration with Concordia University, Oak Park River Forest High School and other local organizations cement our relations with the community. Volunteers from the community distribute posters, usher at concerts, help with mailings, and prepare snacks for musicians on concert days.

Serving Illinois Artists and Opportunities for Youth

The Symphony is a community orchestra and most of the orchestra members are local area musicians who volunteer their time and talents. To promote future orchestral music lovers they have an annual Family Concert; children and all students through college are admitted free to all of our concerts. The Symphony has an internship program, and last season had a record number of eleven high school string interns -- all of whom received $600 stipends to perform with the Symphony in all of the symphony concerts. They have developed a close collaboration with P.I.N.G. (Providing Instruments for the Next Generation) and several members of the Symphony volunteer their time teaching their students (to be a PING recipient, students must be financially needy). The Symphony instituted an annual Concerto Competition beginning in the 2004-2005 season. This competition is open to all students through the senior year in high school who reside within 10 miles of Oak Park. Last season the winner of the 6th Annual Concerto Competition was violinist Kiyoshi Hayashi, and Oak Park high school student, who performed in the Family Concert in Jan. 2010. That concert also featured the children of the Momenta Performing Arts Company of the Academy of Movement and Music. During the 2009-2010 season the organization began a junior board, made up of high school students who assist at our concerts, hold their own meetings, and attend the Symphony board meetings to get experience in the running of an arts organization.

Growth of Audience

For the 2009-2010 season there were 242 season subscriptions sold. Audience for concerts has also been increasing due to single ticket sales, and the Beethoven Ninth Symphony in February 2010 in Oak Park was performed to a crowd of over 600. This was followed by the Mahler Eighth Symphony in Orchestra Hall, which was performed to an audience of over 1500! Last season they received over $7000 in ticket sales. Much of this success can be attributed to the efforts of Music Director Jay Friedman (ICO Conductor of the Year in 2000), President David Leehey, and General Manager Beth Gavriel (ICO General Manager of the Year in 2004). By programming younger performers and by extending our free student ticket policy to college as well as high school, they have attracted a greater number of young audience members. In addition, they have established a close relationship with the Latino Music Festival of Chicago, which resulted in the Mexican outreach concert in Cicero in November 2009.

At the conclusion of the awards and concert on April 3rd, Maestro Friedman shared his appreciation to his orchestra... "The Symphony of Oak Park and River Forest orchestra members most certainly could have gotten the Orchestra of the Year award without me, but I could not have gotten the Conductor of the Year Award without out you."

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