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MUSIC : The Peter in 'Peter and the Wolf' : Actor Peter Strauss is preparing for one of his toughest roles, with children as his critics.

September 20, 1990|AURORA MACKEY ARMSTRONG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Peter Strauss is sitting in the office of his Spanish hacienda in Ojai, his latest script lying open on the desk.

Normally, the sight wouldn't be unusual. Ever since Strauss first gained fame in the television miniseries "Rich Man, Poor Man," the Emmy Award-winning actor has had no complaints about a lack of television, film and stage projects.

But this script is different.

It's a musical, and Strauss doesn't sing.

There's a lot of action going on, but he doesn't move.

He's a big-name actor, but he gets upstaged by a French horn.

No, this is not some avant-garde collaboration between Oliver Stone and Rogers and Hammerstein. Strauss is preparing for his role as the narrator in the Ventura County Symphony's performance of "Peter and the Wolf," Serge Prokofiev's musical fairy tale for children.

The concert, part of the Ventura Music Celebration, will also include the humorous "March Past of the Kitchen Utensils" from "The Wasps" by Ralph Vaughn-Williams, "Intermezzo" by Enrique Granados, the minute and finale from Franz Joseph Hayden's Symphony No. 45, and the first movement of Beethoven's Piano Concert No. 3, performed by 15-year-old Joseph Shen Chieh I.

Strauss, whose script is actually an orchestral score that has fortune cookielike strips of narration taped to various bars, sees his appearance with the symphony as a professional challenge. After all, he said, a role once performed by Eleanor Roosevelt, Adlai Stevenson, Mia Farrow and Peter Ustinov is nothing to sneeze at.

"I'm not taking the part lightly at all," Strauss said. "Kids are probably the worst, toughest audience there is."

Strauss should know. He is the father of two sons, ages 4 and 6, and he's an actor whose face and voice can be seen and heard often on television.

But his children aren't that impressed with his acting credentials. Often, they'll walk by the television set and remark off-handedly, "Oh, there's Dad on the TV again," as they head off to play, he said.

His sons may be his toughest critics, but they have taught him a thing or two. "If I read them a story and start getting into it and acting out too many of the characters, they'll get frustrated with me," he said, laughing. "They say, 'Oh Dad, can't you just read it?' So right now, I have to give a lot of thought to how I'll approach the narrator's part."

Strauss has other reasons to worry about his upcoming performance. He has a background in music because his German father, a pianist, introduced him to it when he was a child. And when he was young, the younger Strauss played double bass. But reading an orchestral score, he said, is a bit different.

Instead of counting each bar, as an instrumental player would, Strauss will rely on the notations for the musicians--such as those telling them to play staccato or pizzicato--for his cues.

He will also be depending on symphony conductor Frank Salazar, who came out to the 35-acre Ojai ranch last week to check on Strauss' comfort level with the piece.

"We only had one rehearsal, and so he wanted to walk me through it," Strauss said. "Frank hummed the entire score for me, and then would ask me, 'Do you hear the violins here?' Then I'd say, 'Yeah, now do the horns,' " said Strauss, suddenly breaking into an imitation of Salazar imitating a French horn.

Salazar said he has absolute confidence in Strauss, adding that he is a "wonderful choice" for the part.

"The role requires a first-class actor, more than musicianship," Salazar said. "It's not like a singer where he'd have to hit specific pitches."

Written in 1936 for a small orchestra, "Peter and the Wolf" is the story of a young boy who captures a large, ferocious wolf with the help of friendly animals. Each character in the piece is associated with a specific instrument and melodic phrase-- the wolf, for instance, is represented by a French horn, the bird by a flute and the cat by a clarinet.

Because the piece allows listeners to identify the different sounds and personalities of various instruments, it has long been considered one of the better ways to introduce children to an orchestra.

"It's a masterpiece," Salazar said. "No one should get through childhood without hearing it."

For Strauss, who is donating his time to the symphony, that was the major motivation for taking the role. His sons will be sitting in the audience.

"It's the perfect example of something that allows kids to use their muscle of imagination and conjure up their own images," he said, pausing for a moment.

"I don't mean to bite the hand that feeds me," he said, "but it's the antithesis of TV."

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