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Music Notes: return of the topless orchestra

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The first thing Temma Abrams wants you to understand is that the two groups are not the same. Many of the instrumentalists still play at Lyric Opera and in Grant Park, but, she insists, there's absolutely no legal connection between the late Orchestra of Illinois and the thriving Symphony II. And the symphony has two things the orchestra sorely lacked: a sound financial policy and musicians who take a deep interest in its day-to-day operations.

"We did not run that orchestra," says Abrams, assistant concertmaster, president, and de facto general manager for Symphony II. "We were not the administration. But we did learn from the mistakes that were made."

When the Orchestra of Illinois perished in 1988 of acute financial hemmorhaging, a "crash team" from the American Orchestra League came in and studied the situation. They concluded, according to Abrams, that "a metropolitan area like Chicago should certainly have another full-size, fully professional orchestra."

Planning for the new group began almost before the old one was buried. The group turned to the Executive Service Corps of Chicago, an organization that matches retired executives with not-for-profits in need of their experience, and landed Bob Mixter, a jovial PR man, who served as an unpaid consultant for a year and then joined the board. All board members are expected to be music lovers ("or very rich," says Mixter), and half are musicians. There's no paid staff: "We all do everything--office work, grant writing, board meetings," says Abrams. "I read recently that many arts organizations are in trouble because they're top-heavy with administration. I guess you could call us the topless orchestra."

Symphony II is offering a varied program in 1992. Their opening concert of the season--Sunday at 7 pm at Northwestern University's Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, 1977 Sheridan in Evanston--will include William Bolcom's Commedia, Francis Poulenc's Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, featuring Claire Aebersold and Ralph Neiweem, and Felix Mendelssohn's Scottish Symphony, all led by the young Brazilian conductor Fabio Mechetti. "Putting the programs together is a little like going to a candy store," says Abrams. "The artistic committee meets, and someone says, 'I've always wanted to play such and such' or 'Why don't we play so-and-so?' It grows from there."

The rest of the season will include works by Johann Christian Bach, Beethoven, Dvorak, Rossini, Bruch, and Shostakovich. Three-concert subscription-series tickets may be had for $33 to $66; single tickets are $13.50 to $27.50 (call 708-866-6888).

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.

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