Music by the Numb3rs counts up to 9

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By Michelle Dybal

Contributing Reporter

Enjoying beautifully performed music in one's home isn't new. The earliest examples of instrumental music composed for home performance date from the 15th century. What is new is the innovative approach the Symphony of Oak Park-River Forest has taken to the concept of chamber music with their "Music by the Numb3rs" series this summer.

Bringing nine performances, played in different rooms in Oak Park's Cheney Mansion, members of the Symphony are counting up — from solo works to a nonet each Wednesday — all available virtually for safe viewing by audience members. 

From the first performance, the goal is to draw viewers in. It is a solo piece, Bach's Chaconne, performed by principal viola, Uli Widmaier. The music is captivating, but so is the ambiance — a room filled with windows at twilight with the greenery of gardens just beyond.

The Symphony has been partnering with the Park District of Oak Park (PDOP) to bring outdoor concerts to the grounds of Cheney Mansions for the past few of summers, according to Symphony board member Cheryl Flinn.

"Then this year, it became apparent that we wouldn't be able have the same type of performance, and Susan [Crane, special events manager, PDOP] offered to host a virtual series," Flinn said. "She was kind enough to offer the mansion for rehearsals as well as performances for some of our larger ensembles. Finding a space large enough to hold even 10 people for socially-distanced rehearsals was a challenge."

Also drawing the viewer in while during Music by the Numb3rs performances is the quality of the recordings. This is no Zoom presentation from a practice room. The Symphony's cellist, Alex Groesch, from local Butterfly Productions, created the mini-concert vignettes and the professional quality of the sound, lighting and video puts this on a different level from much of the virtual performance work available now. 

Each concert is introduced by Maurice Boyer, conductor of the series and associate conductor of the Symphony of OP-RF. He talks about the pieces, adding to the understanding and appreciation of works composed by familiar names such as Vivaldi, Beethoven, Saint-Saens, Schubert, Schumann and Grieg — and some not so familiar like Kozeluh, Poulenc and Schutz. 

While creating the series was a team effort by Symphony board members and others, Boyer played a key role: selecting the repertoire, and rehearsing and conducting the larger groups of musicians, according to Beth Hoover, Symphony general manager and oboist in the orchestra. She credits Boyer with suggesting a series "starting with one performer and going up to nine performers, socially distanced, plus a conductor, which stays within the state's COVID-19 guidelines." 

Each concert lasts about 20 minutes and features one or two works. In the duet concert, the audience is introduced to a father-son pair of trumpet players. According to Flinn, the whole family is in the Symphony. "The parents met in the orchestra, and now their two kids play in the orchestra," she said. This is followed by young Concerto Competition finalist Elinor Detmer, who passionately plays the violin along with piano in the second featured work.

A special treat comes with the quartet performance, a piece by Beethoven, "Three Equali" for four trombones. A trombone quartet is not often seen, and this one features Jay Friedman, music director for the Symphony of OP-RF, who has been principal trombonist for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 1965. Friedman returns on trombone in the upcoming Aug. 19 performance, which includes another trombone quartet performing Poulenc's "Four Little Prayers of St. Francis Assisi." He also plays in the septet, performing Schutz's "Attendite, popule meus, legem meam" and "Fili mi, Absalon."

The Music by the Numb3rs series started on July 8 and concludes with the nonet concert on Sept. 2, but the complete series may be viewed through Sept. 7 (Labor Day). Individual concerts can also be purchased for any upcoming Wednesday dates.

Continuing to bring music into the lives of their audience as well as staying engaged themselves has been important to the local orchestra during the challenges presented to performing arts groups during the pandemic.   

"We were very concerned about staying current in our audience's minds" Hoover said. "We had our thinking caps on trying to decide what to do next and this was a great solution; not only would our name be out in the public but it gave some of our orchestra members a chance to perform."

The Symphony's last rehearsal was March 11, just before their concert at Symphony Center, in Chicago, home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. That April concert, held once every two years, is a major fundraiser for the orchestra and a special event for the musicians, which includes several area choirs.

"When that and five other events were canceled, we were all quite depressed," said Hoover, who came up with the summer series' name and also performs in the Octet. "For me, Music by the Numb3rs has been a lifesaver!" 

See "Music by the Numb3rs," Wednesdays through Sept. 2, 4 to 5 p.m., (or view later at your convenience), virtually available through the Park District of Oak Park. $5 per concert, Oak Park residents; $50 for the series, OP residents. $8 per concert, non-residents; $67 for the series, non-residents. Register: pdop.org. 

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