This Sunday, December 13, Kathy Najimy joins the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra for two performances as the Narrator in Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. Conducted by Donato Cabrera, performances are at 1pm and 4pm. Kathy Najimy joins a long list of celebrity narrators who have helped introduce the experience of a symphony orchestra and to Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev since the piece debuted in 1936. Commissioned by Natalya Sats – who at 15 created the Moscow Musical Theater for Children – Peter and the Wolf has served as a major stepping stone not only for budding musicians, but for the yet-to-be-inspired filmmaker, recording artist, and animator, along with future majors in World History and Political Science.
“I grew up very lower working class,” said Kathy during our recent interview. “So, we didn’t get to go to the opera and symphony and ballet unless our school sponsored a field trip. What that did was to show me opportunity. That’s what I’ve always been wildly interested in. Most of the dads in our neighborhood had jobs for money, not jobs from their choosing. So, the fact that someone could be moved by something in the world and then go on and do it for a living was always interesting and inspiring to me. Those field trips showed me that there were actually people in the world who were doing what they were inspired to do. I also started a sort-of second family with my friends in junior high and high school. That’s when I became a musical theatre nerd. Like a million other kids, music and drama became a really great escape and hobby and inspiration for what could be my future. All of that together really influenced me. And then I became a huge rabid fan of Bette Midler. The end of that story is that I ended up playing her sister in a movie called Out of Focus. Right now I’m feeling like I should get more involved with music and art programs for elementary schools knowing how much it showed me a world I knew nothing about.”
I quickly pointed out that there may be a lot of newcomers – of all ages! – to Davies Hall this weekend, simply to see her in person. For eight decades, memories of first-time experiences with Peter and the Wolf usually begin with whoever narrated the piece – starting with Natalya Sats – and then the orchestra accompanying it. My own (at age three) happened with a re-release of Disney’s classic animated film, Make Mine Music – which included Peter and the Wolf with Mr. Disney’s favorite character actor, Sterling Holloway, as the narrator. That same year, Santa brought the soundtrack recording and the Little Golden Book with the Disney illustrations. Though it took a while to get further acquainted with composer Sergei Prokofiev, I got hooked on the prolific film career of Sterling Holloway.
“I’m sure the Youth Symphony is going to far outweigh anything I could bring,” she said. “It was so nice of them when I read it and then spoke with my agent and said, ‘I don’t know. I’m such an animal person, a compassion person.’ They responded with, ‘You can change anything you want.’ I thought that was the nicest, coolest thing ever. So, we’re adding a little more compassionate twist to the end.”
The San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra (SFSYO) is recognized internationally as one of the finest youth orchestras in the world. Founded by the San Francisco Symphony in 1981, the SFSYO’s musicians are chosen from more than 300 applicants in annual auditions. The SFSYO’s purpose is to provide an orchestral experience of pre-professional caliber, tuition-free, to talented young musicians from the greater Bay Area. The more than 100 diverse musicians, ranging in age from 12 to 21, represent communities from throughout the Bay Area. The SFSYO rehearses and performs in Davies Symphony Hall under the direction of Wattis Foundation Music Director Donato Cabrera. As part of its annual holiday Peter and the Wolf concerts, the SFSYO collaborates with a wide range of artists and local celebrities. Past narrators have included author Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket); actors Sharon Stone, Robin Williams, Sid Caesar, Leonard Nimoy, and Danny Glover; singers Linda Ronstadt, Rita Moreno, and Bobby McFerrin; columnist Herb Caen; and Michael Tilson Thomas.
“We didn’t have a lot of access to music,” said Kathy. “We had a transistor radio, an old console stereo, and what LPs I bought at K-mart and could carry home on my bike. The music that this generation is exposed to is a billion times what we had. Isn’t it interesting how the music we were exposed to has become the fabric of our life?”
A lasting impression I have of Kathy Najimy is attending a taping of her hit TV series from 1997–2000 with Kirstie Alley, Veronica’s Closet. It came about from being handed tickets by one of the show’s PR folks who was scoping out the tourists at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. I was sighing over the footprints of Norma Shearer. “We’ll even provide you pizza!” he exclaimed. OK! The experience of being in the studio with this amazing cast was fascinating and exhausting. But as the hours went by, what was even more compelling was the spot-on / ready-to-go professionalism of Kathy Najimy as Olive.
“By the time Veronica’s Closet came around, I had already done Soapdish, The Fisher King, Sister Act – one and two – and Hocus Pocus. I actually wasn’t interested about being on a TV show. It just felt so everyday-ish. I talked to the creators, Marta Kauffman and David Crane, about my concerns of playing a sort-of second fiddle woman who was successful in business – but didn’t have a love life, went home and cried with her seven cats, eating constantly. I didn’t want to perpetuate that kind of stereotype. I care very deeply about the way women and men are portrayed – that’s really exclusive to gender. They convinced me that Olive could be really fun and funny, run the company, and have a love life. They really came through with it. I had a storyline with a cute twenty-one year old Tom Cruise look-a-like boy and his father. They also let Olive be Arabic – to be Lebanese. So, when Kirstie [as Veronica Chase] comes to my house we have hummus. I also had a picture of Gloria Steinem on my desk and carried a Pita mug. I had a blast! I felt really comfortable and in my skin and thought the writing was hilarious. I loved working with Kirstie. We’re still friends – I talked to her the other day when I was in Wichita, her home town. I had delivered a keynote speech about choice.”
To date, there are over fifty recordings available of Peter and the Wolf, some of them on YouTube. The list of Narrators includes: Alice Cooper, Dudley Moore, John Gielgud, Hermione Gingold, Sting, Sean Connery, David Bowie, Sir Alec Guinness, Dame Edna Everage, Eleanor Roosevelt, Sophia Loren and Captain Kangaroo.
“Without those school field trips, there would’ve been no way that Kathy Najimy – working class in San Diego – would have ever been to a symphony, opera, ballet or musical. It’s not something I say, it’s something I feel. It’s who I am. San Francisco is the city of so many freedoms. That is one reason I feel so comfortable there. I’m obviously a feminist, I love animals. If you want to call them causes – compassion, respect, equality, health and welfare for all beings – then we probably all have the same causes. But if we were going to be specific, then it would be about getting the arts back into the schools and honoring the Classics – while ushering them towards modern equality.”
“With different takes?” I asked.
“With different takes.”
Click here to order tickets on-line: PETER AND THE WOLF
–– Sean Martinfield
11 December 2015