Saviors of song
Local orchestras rescue historic music from destruction, bring it back to life at shows
Of all the old printed music that Kim Venaas and his orchestras have rescued from the dustbin of history, a faded clarinet arrangement is one of his favorites.
On the front is "Down by the Old Mill Stream." On the back, a long-ago clarinet player scrawled a giant note, presumably to another musician: "YOUR FLY IS OPEN."
Venaas hoots with laughter. The next minute he pounces on the 9-foot grand piano in his Palo Alto home to pound out the World War II tune "He's Got A WAVE in His Hair (And A WAAC on His Hands)," vocals and all.
One expects he'll next take on the 1940s "God Bless America" arrangement — the part marked "Kate Smith solo."
In the hands of Venaas and the Peninsula Pops and Black Tie Jazz orchestras he conducts, this music couldn't be less antique or more alive.
Venaas's groups are on a mission to save printed music dating back as far as 80, 90, 100 years. They've been spurred by cash-strapped school music libraries shrinking, elderly collectors passing away, and the general passage of time.
This all means the loss of original music that is the bread and butter of the Palo Alto orchestras: the big band music played by Black Tie Jazz, and the Gershwin, Berlin, Porter and other popular tunes on the Pops programs.
"It's just tragic...much of that music cannot be replaced at any cost," said Venaas's wife, Alicia Wilmunder, who is also a Pops cellist and its general manager.
So the orchestras have been gathering old music from donations, estates, wherever they can. Many of the treasures are orchestra arrangements, while others are piano sheet music songs with peppy illustrated covers.
Venaas estimates he has 170,000 arrangements for big band and jazz (including some duplicates) stored at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland. As for the popular songs favored by the Pops, the group has some 5,000 in 25 file cabinets and 113 running feet of steel shelving in a storage unit near the Palo Alto Airport.
While the music is carefully archived, it's not meant to languish in storage. Venaas is also giving the old tunes their time in the sun — or stage lights — again.
Some of this music gets new life on June 4, when the Peninsula Pops play their "Hollywood or Bust!" show at Spangenberg Theatre in Palo Alto. Besides offering up music from such classic and modern movies as "Singin' In the Rain," "Laura" and "Titanic," the orchestra will also dip into the "rescued" collection.
One number is "Crazy Rhythm," with vocals by tenor Don Gustafson. The tune was originally played by orchestras in the giant movie "palaces" between film features.
"This was the number-one song in 1928," Venaas notes, plunking it out on his piano.
As he plays, afternoon light filters down from four skylights in the Barron Park home, in a high-ceilinged room Venaas and Wilmunder had specially built to show off the piano. (This was once their patio; the cement floor is better equipped than wood to hold the instrument's 1,800-pound load.)
All around are music, movie and theater memorabilia — from 1950s programs from San Francisco's Curran Theater to a lovingly framed photo of Frank Sinatra. The couple's collection also includes four pianos, two tubas, two accordions, four marimbas, a reed organ and a xylophone. Shelves are packed with old player piano rolls the couple rescued from an abandoned house after there had been a fire in it.
The home and the orchestras are a source of constant wonder to Vic Befera, who nods here and there as Venaas plays tunes he recognizes.
"I'm old enough to remember a lot of these," he admits.
Befera comes to every Pops concert and is such a fan that he's begun volunteering public-relations work for the group.
"The idea of saving this music is just magnificent. It's music history that they're saving from extinction," he says.
Much of the rescued music comes from Venaas' trip to Southern California earlier this spring. An elderly conductor had died, and his massive music collection overwhelmed the local symphony association.
"He collected faster than he could figure out what he had collected," Venaas said. "They didn't know how to handle it when they realized this was not Mozart."
Turns out the collection was packed with popular music, including "Crazy Rhythm." So Venaas caravaned down with Pops concertmaster Alan Cooper and other musicians to pore over the hundreds of cases of music set to be destroyed.
With the help of $4,000 raised by Pops supporters, the group has acquired and stored a treasure trove of three kinds of orchestra music (dance, symphony and theater). The collection also includes historic silent movie music, some of which the orchestra will also play June 4, while showing a Charlie Chaplin silent. (See the story on page 11.)
Also in the collection were Rudy Vallee and Morton Downey radio scripts, and pieces of music that had been gifts from composers.
"They're precious for the autographs alone," Wilmunder said.
Then there's the music from the late 1800s that is ripped, apparently because the violinist tore it while turning the page. The musician then pasted the music back together with commemorative stamps from the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York.
For those with a morbid curiosity about the past, this little tear adds a particular flair: U.S. President William McKinley was assassinated at the 1901 expo.
But modern damage is more mundane, and so the Pops archivists treat the old music with meticulous care. Organized by Wilmunder, several Pops members store the pieces in archival envelopes made with acid-free paper and catalogue them.
"Part of the process is documenting the identified damaged music and to find the best method of repair," Wilmunder said. Music may be marred by water, mildew, mice nibbles or sticky insects.
Wilmunder plans to seek out specialists, such as Stanford University library preservation workers, to help properly restore the music.
When the Pops play the old music, they use photocopies, Venaas said. "I never let the originals out of our hands." He hopes ultimately to digitize the music, but is concerned about the damage a scanner might cause.
The Pops, of course, are not alone in preserving old music. Duke University is known for its collection of sheet music, said to contain some 20,000 items mostly from 1830 to 1930. One can read the music on the library's Web site at www.lib.duke.edu/music.
The Parlor Songs Association, a nonprofit in Washington, also collects sheet music but does something a little different with it. Besides keeping 5,000 pieces of music in acid-free poly bags and a temperature-controlled storage unit, the Parlor Songs folks also create electronic online versions of the songs that folks can click and listen to at www.parlorsongs.net.
This makes for an interesting juxtaposition of eras: using a modern machine to hear a 1905 rendition of "Turkey in the Straw."
And in the end, that's what preserving this music is all about: melding it into the present and the future. The tunes may hit a nostalgic chord from the past, but they still move us in the here and now.
Venaas, ever the ebullient conductor, suddenly gets choked up as he recalls a Pops show last year, when Venaas pulled Wilmunder out of the cello section to dance with her.
A man and a woman in the audience were moved, and when their 50th anniversary rolled around the next week they remembered the Pops, Venaas said, still blinking.
"The man danced with his wife for the first time in years," he said.
What: The Peninsula Pops show "Hollywood or Bust!" including movie music and older tunes rescued from destruction by the orchestra.
Where: Spangenberg Theatre, 780 Arastradero Road, Palo Alto
When: 3 p.m. June 4
Cost: Tickets are $10-$18.
Info: Call (650) 856-8432 or go to www.peninsulapops.org.