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March 05, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, March 05, 2004

A salute to Oscar A salute to Oscar (March 05, 2004)

Peninsula Pops celebrates Academy Award-winning music

by Marge Speidel

I t's still Oscars week -- at least for the Peninsula Pops Orchestra, which presents its "Hooray for Hollywood" program on Sunday at Spangenberg Theatre.

But don't expect to hear the score from "Lord of the Rings" at this concert.

"We've already played that at our Halloween concert," conductor Kim Venaas said. "But we'll have music from 'Pirates of the Caribbean,' and that's a first in the Bay Area. The music just came out."

Audiences will also hear excerpts from "Chicago," " Gone With the Wind," "Star Wars," "Star Trek" and "An American in Paris," among others. There will also be a special tribute to the master of movie music, Henry Mancini.

To select the movie themes for the upcoming concert, Venaas and his wife, Alicia (a cellist in this orchestra and others in the Bay Area), researched music winners from 70 years of Academy Award movies. They found little correlation between the best movies and the best music. This program features the best music.

"I love it when the audience has that moment of quick recognition," Venaas said. "We want to make the backs of their necks quiver, or have them thrill to the opening notes of a song. We hope to make them feel the curtains opening and the show beginning."

Venaas' idea of pops music is that it should be fun -- for the musicians as well as the audience. Players often wear zany hats. And Venaas has found parts for flugel horns, doorbells, typewriters and vacuum cleaners in his programming. He tells jokes, gets the audience singing, and -- above all -- entertains.

"When I go to a concert, I want to be entertained, not educated," said Vebaas, whose musical influences include Spike Jones and Raymond Scott. "It's a way of relaxing and getting away from everyday cares."

Though known for their quirky touches, Venaas intends for Sunday's concert to feature more standard instruments.

Quite the contrast from a concert last June, in which Venaas programmed British composer Malcolm Arnold's "Grand Grand Grand Overture," scored for symphony orchestra, pipe organ, four rifles, three vacuum cleaners and one floor polisher in E flat. The piece originally premiered in 1954 at the Hoffnung Festival, named after Gerald Hoffnung, an amateur tubist and New Yorker-style cartoonist who liked to include musical instruments in his works.

Venaas got the floor polisher from his father-in-law, Alan Wilmunder of Palo Alto, who agreed to loan it in exchange for getting to "play" it during the performance.

In that same concert, Venaas used an L.C. Smith manual typewriter in a rendition of Leroy Anderson's "The Typewriter Song." The typewriter now occupies a niche in the living room of Venaas' Barron Park home.

In last December's concert, then-Assemblyman Joe Simitian (who attended Palo Alto High School with Venaas), narrated "The Night Before Christmas" surrounded on stage by 60 kids.

Venaas' enthusiastic crew of 50 volunteer musicians, ranging in age from a teenager to three violinists in their 80s, is truly a "pops" orchestra. Yet some of the players trained at outstanding classical conservatories such as Oberlin, Juilliard and Eastman School of Music.

"Among our players are violinist Page Goldbeck, a former Navy flyer who was at Pearl Harbor on the day of the Japanese attack; bassoonist Peter Neumann, a principal scientist from Stanford Research Institute and bassoonist Sara Acevedo, a scientist who has worked on the Mars program at NASA. Trumpet player Spencer Naar is a senior at Gunn High School," Venaas said.

Peninsula Pops is one of only two genuine pops orchestras in California.

"There's a difference in what we play, compared to what symphony orchestras play during their summer 'pops' series," Venaas explained. "They are classical musicians playing show tunes or light classics. We are the musicians down in the theater pit during a Broadway show. We do the full realm of popular music -- Broadway, musicals, TV, movies, jazz, rock, light classics and big band. The only other true pops orchestra in California is in Pasadena."

Growing audiences for the pops concerts are taxing the 900-seat capacity of Spangenberg Theatre. Last June's concert attracted 1,200 people over two nights. By next fall, the orchestra hopes to expand its schedule by playing each of its five annual concerts twice, instead of once.

"We're highly efficient among California symphony orchestras in our use of funds," Venaas said. "Our costs are low, so that every dollar we put into it goes right into the ear of the listener. Out of 150 symphony orchestras tracked by the Association of California Symphony Orchestras, we are the most efficient of any in the Bay Area in size of audience compared to the cost of putting on the concert."

Venaas did not disclose the cost of a Peninsula Pops concert, but noted that some orchestras spend $200,000 or more in terms of staff and promotion for a single performance.

Venaas, who has lived in Palo Alto since he was 11, is an actor as well as a musician. He has a part in a forthcoming Hollywood production, "Swing: The Movie," scheduled for release this month in Los Angeles and New York. The movie stars Jacqueline Bissett, Jonathan Winters and Barry Bostwick.

In the film, Venaas directs the Black Tie Jazz Orchestra (they are called the Club Jimbo Orchestra in the movie), a 19-piece professional big band that he conducts. He selected the music and did the arrangements for the film, a love story set in San Francisco that fluctuates between 1941 and present day. Both director Martin Guigui and the film's soundtrack picked up awards in December at the Latin USA Film festival.

"The only music I haven't done is country western and rap," Venaas joked."
Editor's Note: Spencer Naar is the son of Mike Naar, vice president and chief financial officer for the Embarcadero Publishing Company.

What: Peninsula Pops presents its "Hooray for Hollywood" show. The concert will feature the most memorable music from 70 years of Academy Award-winning films. A pre-show Pops benefit buffet dinner will be held at 5 and 6 p.m. at Compadres in Palo Alto. Tickets for the dinner are $15 for adults, $12 seniors, kids $8.

When: Sunday at 7:30 p.m.

Where: Spangenberg Theatre, 780 Arastradero Road in Palo Alto.

Cost: Tickets are $12 general, $10 seniors $8 students. To purchase tickets online, visit

Info: Call (650) 856-8432 or visit

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