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Feature story: An overture's opening night

Orchestra celebrates its 20th birthday by premiering a new work

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There are moments in Lee Actor's new work "Celebration Overture" that may remind listeners of the bouncy playfulness of coin-operated video-game music or the thundering bombast of a Dmitri Shostakovich film score.

Recently, Actor modestly agreed when a fan compared "Celebration" to music by Shostakovich. "There are only 12 notes, as they say," so it's inevitable, he said.

The video-game comparison may not be too far off, either, since Actor -- now the assistant conductor and composer-in-residence for the Palo Alto Philharmonic -- programmed games for about 20 years.

Now the composer's new piece will be played before Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D minor at the Philharmonic's 20th-anniversary gala concert on Oct. 20. Both works share common instrumentation, with Actor's overture adding a tuba (an instrument that hadn't been invented when Beethoven completed his gargantuan work in 1824).

The concert commemorates 20 years of community music that started with a handful of performers in 1988; the orchestra now has about 65 musicians, coming from various parts of the Bay Area. The Philharmonic is a non-profit organization governed by an all-volunteer board of directors. Alongside the four main orchestra concerts every year, there are two chamber concerts and a family concert with music chosen for an younger audience.

For many years the group was known for presenting Chinese classical music but now typically performs a mix of Western classical compositions and new works, often featuring guest musicians. Earlier this year, the orchestra asked Actor to compose something to honor the anniversary season.

The first thing Actor realized when he started working on his 11-minute overture was that it would be impossible to celebrate for that long. "It would be emotionally exhausting for the listener, as well as structurally unsatisfying," Actor said.

Ostensibly, listeners can hear the childlike hope for celebration in the opening fanfare. This later reposes into the more adult composure of someone ruminating on the same event, in a section Actor has labeled "Misterioso."

The outcome of the work was equally a mystery to the composer when he tried to start work on it in June of this past summer. Like a thresher separating the wheat from the chaff, he kept discarding musical ideas that didn't seem right. With a September deadline over his head Actor kept throwing things away and starting over. "I really started on it right at the beginning of July," Actor recalled.

When Actor talks about composing, he dresses the experience in utilitarian clothes. "People generally have a romantic view of composers. It's a job and I'm not saying there's nothing behind it, but 95 percent of the job is sitting down every day and trying to get something done. You're not in a state of exalted inspiration for months."

As a result Actor lives by the mantra "inspiration comes to those who prepare it," and he has cultivated that inspiration for many years.

Actor's schooling history includes a wide variety of experiences. He has engineering degrees from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and a master's degree in music composition from San Jose State University. He also spent a year at U.C. Berkeley working toward a doctorate in music composition before leaving in 1982.

Soon afterward, Actor had an opportunity to program video games, which led to a 20-year career. His programming can be seen on games such as "PGA Tour Golf" for Sega Genesis, "Snake Pit" for arcades, and "Xena: Warrior Princess" for Sony's PlayStation. On top of that he created an Advanced Music System (used for music composition) for Atari 400/800, a predecessor to Digidesign's Pro Tools recording software. After these successes, he chose to retire from the game business and not work for someone else any more.

At the time the Philharmonic board was looking for a new composer since the founding music director, Gideon Grau, had recently had a stroke. Actor's wife Geri, who plays viola for the group and has served as a president and board member, brought up her husband's name.

Lee Actor wrote Variations and Fugue for Orchestra in 2001 and then the 33-minute Symphony No. 1 the following year. The symphony was commissioned for the Philharmonic's 15th anniversary.

Fast forward to today and the Philharmonic is celebrating its 20th season in dramatic colors. Musical director Thomas Shoebotham of Palo Alto came on board in 2006, bringing credentials including two master's degrees in music and links with the Peninsula Symphony, Berkeley Opera and Opera San Jose.

Recently, Shoebotham said he's eager to present Actor's new overture to the public for the first time. "I think he's an important and major voice in current composition. The players seem to like his work because the material he writes has real drama and meaning. It's also challenging yet playable."

Shoebotham also looks forward to the challenges and rewards that Beethoven's Ninth Symphony will provide. The concert will feature the Palo Alto-based Cantabile Chorale during the symphony's rousing fourth movement.

Later this season, the Philharmonic plans to perform pieces ranging from Mozart's Overture to "The Magic Flute" to Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 by Rachmaninoff (featuring Daniel Glover on piano). Shoebotham says the all-volunteer group wants to continue playing new works alongside its usual classical repertoire.

Shoebotham welcomes new works like Actor's "Celebration Overture," saying they are well-received in a close-knit community orchestra that is known for taking sugar breaks to eat cookies and socialize during rehearsals. He says the Philharmonic has thrived for 20 years because of the sugar-high enthusiasm of its participants.

The music director wholeheartedly praises the musicians, who come from all walks of life to play classical music in an intimate setting. "Even though our players are considered amateurs they really get excited about the music, and you can't always say that about really talented professionals," he said. The cookies might help, too.

What: Concert featuring the world premiere of Lee Actor's "Celebration Overture" and Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D minor with Cantabile Chorale.

Where: Spangenberg Theatre, Gunn High School, 780 Arastradero Road, Palo Alto.

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 20.

Cost: $20 general, $18 for seniors, $10 for students.

Info: Go to http://www.paphil.org or call 408-395-2911.

Comments

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Midtown Guy
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 19, 2008 at 11:36 am

What a treasure! Like being at the symphony. Excellent editing--compressed nicely -- with sounds of warm-up, and part of the performance. Nice close-ups of instruments. I love classical music and this shows how much we have right here in our own community. Bravo, Bravo, Bravoooooooooo!


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