When she was growing up in Texas and all the kids in school were starting to play musical instruments, a teacher took one look at her and said: "You have big hands. You should play the bassoon."
"Of course, my hands haven't grown since then," Ekholm said.
Still, she developed a lasting love for the statuesque woodwind instrument. Benjamin Simon, who conducts Ekholm in the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, where she's principal bassoonist, says that sentiment seems visceral and visual.
"She exudes a joy in playing," he said. "Even when she's sitting in her chair, she dances to the music."
Simon also heads the student Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra, where he regularly builds concert programs around solos by favorite visiting professional musicians. For the March 10 performance at Palo Alto's Cubberley Theatre, he's planned a program around Ekholm and her bassoon.
Ekholm will solo with the orchestra in Jean Francaix's "Divertimento for Bassoon and Strings." PACO will also perform Henry Purcell's "An English Suite," and the "First Suite for Strings" by the late northern California contemporary composer Lou Harrison.
The performing group is the senior orchestra of PACO, which has five chamber orchestras, each with about 25 members.
As a bassoonist, Ekholm doesn't get many offers to perform with string-heavy student orchestras. In fact, this is her first time. She says she's been very pleased with the rehearsal experience so far at PACO.
"These guys are so disciplined," she said. "They take a little longer to get to where they're going," she added, and a few more rehearsals are needed, but it's "pretty similar to playing with a professional orchestra."
Ekholm is also pleased with the Francaix piece she'll be playing. "It's not ostentatiously showy as far as technique, but it's a tricky little piece for the bassoon," she said. "The whole thing is you can't show that to the audience. It is so charming and light and bubbly and just refreshing, so I need to go tripping over everything so lightly."
As Ekholm has spent more time with the "Divertimento," thinking about the work and its French neoclassical composer, who died in 1997, she finds the notes conjuring up a story in her mind. She imagines a finely drawn cartoon character coming from the rural provinces to Paris for the first time and exploring its wonders. It's all part of her personal creative approach to this work.
"I've lived with this piece and I have a very definite sense of the character and what he's doing," she said.
As Ekholm prepares for the PACO concert, she adds the endeavor to her usual mix of playing with various groups and on various stages, driving to and from her home in San Francisco. Crisscrossing the Bay Area for gigs is nothing new to her. She performs with six orchestras as a contract member and many other groups as a freelancer. Opera is a favorite genre; she toured for 20 years with San Francisco Opera's late touring company, Western Opera Theater.
Ekholm's three decades as a traveling musician intrigued filmmakers Tal Skloot and Steven Baigel, who chose her as one of seven freelance players to profile in their 2008 documentary "Freeway Philharmonic." The film described the musicians as "the road warriors of the classical-music world."
(Cellist Eugene Sor, who directs PACO's Debut Ensemble, is also featured in the film.)
In the movie's trailer, Ekholm can be seen saying: "My car has 330,000 miles on it. My accelerator leg hurts." She also displays an injury: a broken finger sustained while boogie-boarding in 2006.
"It's not like it was. My finger just goes to a different place now," she said last week. "It's a good thing I don't play a stringed instrument. ... I was able to adapt my bassoon to me."
To add profound insult to injury, Ekholm's bassoon — an instrument worth more than $30,000 — was stolen from her car in 2007. "The San Ramon police got it back. It was quite a story," she said.
While Ekholm has her instrument again, life has gotten tougher for freelance musicians in the recession, with orchestras cutting concerts or even going under, she said. She counts herself fortunate to be preparing for a concert with a group and a conductor she's so fond of.
"He's enthusiastic; I love that," she said of Simon. "He's such a great musician and so quick to understand things." Ekholm said she sometimes finds herself in rehearsals making comments and suggestions that might seem cryptic, but that Simon is always on the same wavelength. "He gets it. He gets the music and that's what I love."
With the March 10 program, Simon is also allowing audiences to get more than the traditional Baroque selections one often hears. The composer Lou Harrison (1917-2003) was not only contemporary but a maverick, often blending East and West influences. "He was very into Javanese music, gamelan and microtones," Simon said, further describing Harrison's compositions as "simple but heartfelt and beautiful, no artifice."
Simon and PACO will continue their exploration of contemporary music at the June 2 concert, which includes the world premiere of Elizabeth Ogonek's "Window Watchers in a City of Strangers." Born in 1989, Ogonek is studying to earn a master's degree in composition at the University of Southern California.
Info: Both the March 10 and June 2 PACO concerts are at 8 p.m. in Cubberley Theatre, 4000 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Admission is free. For more information, go to http://pacomusic.org or call 650-856-3848.