Like faces on Mount Rushmore, images of the great composers are daunting, burned into our collective memory. There they are -- Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, geniuses with noble profiles, fiery eyes and hallowed reputations. What's a man like Lee Actor supposed to do?

He is a composer in the trenches, a South Bay professional whose works get performed from Saratoga to Slovakia. He earns a solid income but isn't famous, has never won the Pulitzer Prize for music and maybe never will. "It's hard," says Actor, whose new piano concerto debuts this weekend on the Peninsula. "It's hard work. It's harder than writing software."

Solo violinist Alex Zhou, 11, left, bows after finishing playing a solo in the music piece "Havanaise" with composer Lee Actor during rehearsal
Solo violinist Alex Zhou, 11, left, bows after finishing playing a solo in the music piece "Havanaise" with composer Lee Actor during rehearsal for the Palo Alto Philharmonic at the Cubberly Theatre in Palo Alto on May 8, 2013. (Josie Lepe/Staff)

Actor, 60, knows, because he spent 20 years writing code for video games -- he even co-founded a San Jose spinoff of Universal Studios to develop some of those games -- before returning a decade ago to his youthful passion, music. Since about age 50, he has composed steadily, building a body of 20 major works: overtures, symphonies, concertos. More than 50 orchestras have performed them, including the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the Colorado Symphony, two respected ensembles. Far-flung bands know about Actor because an expanding network of soloists and conductors enjoy and talk about his work -- and send commissions his way.


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Happy with his success, even surprised by it, he says he has an inkling that his new piece may be his best yet. If you go to the Friday-Saturday performances by the Peninsula Symphony Orchestra, expect to hear music that is expertly crafted and dramatic. Actor loves the bold expressivity of Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Also, his works brim with melody -- accessible music by a former engineer with a combustible streak.

"Lee is a fairly restrained individual," says conductor Mitchell Sardou Klein, who will lead the new concerto performances in Redwood City and Cupertino. "He speaks with clarity and eloquence, and not with big outbursts of emotion. ... But his music is packed with these outbursts of tension and release, and lyricism and rhythmic drive. It's full of emotion."

Pianist Daniel Glover, the soloist for the new work, says he is "flabbergasted by the skill of Lee's orchestration. I'm thrilled with this piece, and -- who knows? -- it could catch on and enter the repertoire. ... I'd love to see it happen for Lee."

Portrait of composer Lee Actor rehearsing with and conducting the Palo Alto Philharmonic, at the Cubberly Theatre in Palo Alto, Calif., on Thursday, May 8,
Portrait of composer Lee Actor rehearsing with and conducting the Palo Alto Philharmonic, at the Cubberly Theatre in Palo Alto, Calif., on Thursday, May 8, 2013. (Josie Lepe/Bay Area News Group)

Growing up in Denver, Actor began playing the violin at age 7, and got serious as a teen, making it into the Colorado All State Orchestra. He remembers listening to Tchaikovsky and thinking, "I can do that." Unrealistic as that was, he says, he had a hunch about himself.

But he was a pragmatist. "I was really good in math and science, and I figured I would do that," he says. He received an engineering degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., where his future wife -- Geri, a violist -- also was a student. They played together in the school orchestra, married after graduation and moved in 1975 to Boston, where Geri worked toward a graduate degree in material science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Meanwhile, Lee found a job in digital communication systems, while taking private lessons in musical composition and studying conducting.

In 1978, when Geri scored a job with Intel, the couple moved to Silicon Valley, and Actor enrolled in a master's degree program in musical composition at San Jose State. He graduated in 1981, then moved on to a doctoral composition program at UC Berkeley, where he remembers composing dense, gnarly and even "angry" music. Laughing, he says, "I don't know what I was so angry about. But ... nobody was bringing nice melodies to class."

Something else: Actor was "pushing 30. We had one kid, and another was on the way." Fearful of making a living in music, he left UC Berkeley and took a job with the Sunnyvale-based Videa. And so began his 20 years of profitable wanderings in the nonmusical desert, designing games and products for Electronic Arts, Atari, Sega -- a different life story.

This one picks up again about 2001. Geri was principal violist with the Palo Alto Philharmonic and sat on its board of directors, which decided to recruit an assistant conductor. Geri shot up her hand: "I know someone who can do that: my husband."

Actor was hired. Not long after that, he sat down with Gideon Grau, the orchestra's music director, formerly a violinist under legendary conductor George Szell in the Cleveland Orchestra. Grau said to Actor, "Your résumé says you're a composer. How would you like to compose a piece for the orchestra?"

Actor said, "Sure!"

He composed his Variations and Fugue for Orchestra, and -- financially secure after years of Silicon Valley entrepreneurship -- ditched his tech job, later becoming the orchestra's composer-in-residence. His wife was on board with the career change. "Try it," she told him.

"Nobody said to me, 'You're nuts,' " says Actor, whose horn concerto won first prize in the 2007 International Horn Society Composition Contest. In 2011, his "Dance Rhapsody" placed second in the orchestral category of the American Prize in Composition -- though so far his biggest prize, he says, has been finding that lots of people, regular concertgoers, enjoy his music.

"When I was writing software," he says, "I was eating, living and breathing it. ... And now it's the same thing, now that I'm doing music. I go to sleep and it's in my head. I wake up and it's in my head. It's an all-consuming thing. It's who I am."

Contact Richard Scheinin at 408-920-5069. Read his stories and reviews at www.mercurynews.com/richard-scheinin. Follow him at Twitter.com/richardscheinin.

Peninsula Symphony

Mitchell Sardou Klein, conductor; Daniel Glover, pianist.
Premiering Lee Actor's Piano Concerto; program also includes Beethoven's "Pastorale" Symphony and a Mendelssohn overture.

When: 8 p.m. May 17 and 18
Where: Fox Theatre, 2215 Broadway, Redwood City (May 17); Flint Center, 21250 Stevens Creek Blvd., Cupertino (May 18)
Tickets: $10 to $40, 650-941-5291, www.peninsulasymphony.org
Also: Details on Actor, his compositions and recordings are at www.leeactor.com.