Various versions of the vision

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By Michelle Dybal

Contributing Reporter

This season, the Symphony of Oak Park & River Forest invites everyone to Be a Part of the Vision, the theme for a series of five concerts. While four are performed at Concordia University Chicago, River Forest, one, with multiple choruses, will be performed at Symphony Center, home to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO).

Jay Friedman, the symphony's music director, said they need a performance space that can accommodate the size of the chorus — as many as 350 voices — for their April concert, Musical Visionaries.

"That's the jewel of Chicago as far as symphonic music is concerned," said Friedman, who has been playing trombone at Symphony Center with the CSO for 57 years and has been principal trombone since 1965. "The venue adds importance to the concert because it's home to one of the world's greatest orchestras."

The Symphony of OP&RF season opens this Sunday with a Rachmaninoff concert titled, The Vision Begins. Featured guest is piano virtuoso John Bitoy III, who grew up in Oak Park and now teaches piano in Forest Park at Gasse School of Music.

"We have people contacting us all the time who want to perform with us; they're from all over the place," said David Leehey, board president and pianist with the symphony. "But I really like to have local musicians."

Bitoy, who began taking lessons at age 9 when his aunt gave him an electric piano, first saw the Symphony of OP&RF while in high school. They were playing Rachmaninoff's Paganini Variations.

"I remember thinking it would be so cool to solo with you guys," he said.

Now, at age 24, he is playing Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, along with one of the nation's oldest community orchestras, founded in 1931.

"I first discovered this piece when I was 11 or 12," Bitoy said. "I wasn't ready to play it entirely, but I remembered I learned the first page, and I would play it over and over and over, and it was my favorite thing ever. This is like my dream to play [this piece with the orchestra]."

The other piece being performed Sunday is Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2.

"Rachmaninoff is a real crowd pleaser," Friedman said. "But it's a huge undertaking for any orchestra because they are two major works of the Romantic period. We've played some very technically challenging works in the past. Having both on the same program is a lot."

While Leehey said audiences will be familiar with the pieces at most concerts, that is not true of all their concerts. At the Romantic Vision concert on Dec. 1, the featured works are by Rheinberger and Bruckner.

In Rheinberger's Organ Concerto No. 2, Melody Turner, a longtime violinist with the symphony, will showcase her abilities on another instrument — she is the featured organ soloist.

The Bruckner Symphony No. 3 gives the symphony a chance to perform something completely different from the Rachmaninoff concert.

"The sounds the orchestra needs to produce are more subtle, less emotional, leaner, more pure, a finer texture, less over-the-top, but beautiful," Friedman said.

Musical Visionaries, performed at the CSO's Symphony Center, featured composers Richard Wagner and Berlioz were considered avant-garde composers at the time, Leehey said. Berlioz's Te Deum is rarely performed. And excerpts from Wagner's Lohengrin, such as "The Bridal Chorus," will sound like audiences have never heard them before, according to Friedman.

In May, two members of the CSO join the symphony at the Double Vision concert — Stephanie Jeong on violin and Katinka Kleijn on cello, playing Brahms' Double Concerto for Violin and Cello.

Friedman invites one or two CSO musicians each season to play with the Symphony of OP&RF and said, "A lot like to play solos with us."

The symphony also has a vision when it comes to supporting fellow nonprofit organizations — they will be collecting donations at every concert for the second season.

See "The Vision Begins," Sunday, Oct. 6, 4 p.m., Chapel, Concordia University Chicago. Preconcert conversation at 3 p.m. $28, advance; $30, at the door; free, students through college. Bring a donation for Beyond Hunger (formerly OP-RF Food Pantry). Tickets/season subscription/more: symphonyoprf.org. 1124 Bonnie Brae Place, River Forest.

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