Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra marks 50 years

The mission: 'playing well with others'

At a recent rehearsal, 10-year-old Sophie Au, small violin in hand, nailed the solo in Vivaldi's "Primavera," accompanied by some two dozen high school-age string players. Her father, Wing Au, gazed proudly. So did Benjamin Simon, music director and conductor for the Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra, better known as PACO.

Normally, Sophie plays with SuperStrings, the youngest of the five PACO ensembles. However, as one of the winners of PACO's annual concerto competition, she will take center stage on Saturday, June 11, when the senior group plays the Vivaldi concerto at PACO's Golden Anniversary Gala at Palo Alto's First Methodist Church.

"We thought it was important to have a SuperStrings soloist to represent PACO's future," Simon said.

The concert also includes a "Golden Anniversary Overture" written for PACO by alumnus Camden Boyle, a composition student at Juilliard; Peter Heidrich's "Happy Birthday Variations," inspired by Bach, Mozart and ragtime; and Piazzolla's "Summer" from "Four Seasons of Buenos Aires" with a violin solo by PACO alumna Robin Sharp, who lectures at Stanford and serves as concertmaster of the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, which Simon conducts.

The program culminates in a flash mob-style presentation of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 by some 200 musicians, PACO performers plus alumni.

"We will be trying to break the world record" for the largest presentation of the piece, Simon said.

Other celebratory weekend events include informal quartets, a picnic and free concerts on Sunday, June 12, by the PACO Sinfonia and alumni (PACEM) groups at Cubberley Theatre.

If preteen Au represents PACO's future, cellist Kris Yenney speaks to its history. She has been involved with PACO since 1967, a year after its founding, as a cellist, coach, "PACO camp" counselor and conductor. For the past 16 years, she has conducted the 8- to 12-year-old SuperStrings players and she also conducts the Preparatory Orchestra, the next-youngest group. Yenney continues to perform in orchestra pits and with her Celtic ensemble, Broceliande.

"Arguably, I have been involved longer than the founding director," she said. Bill Whitson, who launched the group in 1966 in his Palo Alto living room, died in 2001. Now Yenney continues his legacy.

"When I drive by the house on Waverley Street, it kind of brings a little flood of memories," she said. "It makes me think of Bill and what he meant to me. He was a very influential guy, and that's why I'm here."

Since its founding, the award-winning youth orchestra has expanded its repertoire beyond baroque and become more regional, drawing young musicians from San Francisco and the East Bay as well as the Peninsula and South Bay. PACO groups have toured Europe, performed with professional musicians and brought their music into rural and low-income areas.

The highlight of PACO's upcoming Pacific Northwest tour is a performance on the Elizabethan stage at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Then in August, musicians flock to Aptos for PACO camp, which includes campfires and hikes as well as plenty of opportunities to make music.

"Not a lot of organizations have been around for this long, particularly youth organizations," said Bill Harris, PACO board president and father of 14-year-old violinists Chris and Audrey. Harris, who lives in Menlo Park, where he was raised, calls PACO "an important part of our community. It's kind of like a school, with a turnover every few years and new families." But PACO's mission, which Simon calls "playing well with others," "has kept PACO alive and thriving," Harris added.

According to Simon, "an orchestra is a microcosm of society," and whether a musician is playing with 24 others or in a chamber group of four or five, "they have to get along."

"Everyone here is your friend," said double bass player Daniel Murguia, who just graduated from Lincoln High School in San Jose and will study music at San Jose State. "It's almost like family" but with "music in common."

Playing in a group fosters those friendships, said Mina Farhoush, 10, a SuperStrings viola player from Menlo Park. "It's cool playing with different parts and different instruments."

The parents are also part of the equation: volunteering, raising funds and serving on the board.

"PACO is a gem," said board member Mariko Yang, mother of middle-school violinists Seiji and Masako. With students from the senior groups coaching the younger players, PACO creates "vertical friendships" and "the teaching goes both ways."

In all five groups, each musician plays in a quartet or small ensemble as well as in a string orchestra of about 25, and violinists are shuffled around, sometimes playing melody as first violinists, sometimes counterpoint as seconds, lessening the star factor. "They get their turns," said Yang. "I feel there's no competition. It's a wonderful mechanism to develop perspective and cultivate empathy."

Simon agreed. "We try to minimize the competition, the hierarchy. That's how we knit our social fabric together. We give everyone a chance to be heard."

He also encourages violinists to learn viola, his own instrument, which often "gets no respect."

But PACO players who make the switch appreciate the viola's range and richness. "I like the sound," said Emily Kan, a home-schooled high school sophomore who had never played in an orchestra before joining PACO two years ago. "Viola is not the star. It's the background. I like that."

Mastering PACO's mission of playing well with others could serve well for the 21st century, particularly in Silicon Valley, said Yang, who has raised three children in Palo Alto.

"While the schools seem to agree on what the children need to attain to prepare for the uncertain future," -- including collaboration, communication and creativity -- "they continue to search for the best solution as to how to do it," she said. "I feel that PACO does exactly that. They nurture kids with the right mindset," providing an education that "goes well beyond chamber music."

That education starts in SuperStrings, where playing well together means listening, watching and responding. Before a quartet sits down to play, the musicians practice walking onstage, taking bows and holding instruments in readiness, waiting for a cue from the first violinist.

The other SuperStrings players sit quietly, but not idly, in the audience.

"You are the masters in the master class," conductor Yenney told them at a recent rehearsal. "When you are not playing, what do you do?" she asked, walking barefoot around the rehearsal room, her reddish hair streaming.

"Listen!" they responded. "And watch."

"They're smart little people," Yenney said. "They learn a lot from teaching each other. By the time they get to the senior orchestra level, and they're called upon to teach the younger groups, they've become excellent coaches."

They also learn the difference between playing a solo and being part of an ensemble.

"You're playing the notes, but you're not playing together," Yenney said as SuperStrings rehearsed "Alleluja" from Mozart's "Exultate Jubilate," which they will play June 11. "There are 20 different tempos. It's a happy piece, but that doesn't mean it's a race."

Whether a piece is happy or languid, musicians need to transmit the correct tone, and during a senior PACO rehearsal of Vivaldi's "L'Estate" (Summer), which the group performed last month, Simon explained the changing moods.

"You're languishing in the heat, wilting in the burning sun," he called out. Then as the music becomes more tempestuous, "All of a sudden, we're not the gentle breeze. We're the north wind. ... Come on, violins, give it all you've got."

As the movement climaxed to a conclusion, Simon emphasized the dramatic pause, the rest before the applause.

"You don't move. The audience is holding their breath. The more they hold their breath and refrain from clapping, the more points you get."

But beyond the applause and curtain calls, Simon said his goal for the young performers, regardless of career paths, is to develop "a lifelong love of music, and chamber music, and a fantastic foundation from having played with PACO."

(Watch a video of a PACO rehearsal.)

What: Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra's Golden Anniversary Gala

Where: First Methodist Church, 625 Hamilton Ave., Palo Alto

When: Saturday, June 11 at 4:30 p.m.

Cost: $40 adults, $20 for youth age 18 and under

Info: Additionally, PACO's Sinfonia group plays at 3 p.m. Sunday, June 12, and the alumni group (PACEM) performs the same day at 7 p.m., both at Cubberley Theatre, 4000 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Both events are free. Go to pacomusic.org.

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3 people like this
Posted by Arts
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 10, 2016 at 1:27 pm


Palo Alto's other premier youth symphony, El Camino Youth Symphony (ECYS) also turned 50 a few years ago. I would just like to comment on the foresight, commitment to children's education, and love of the arts resulted in creating what we have today. It's a thought for our community today.

All the best for another 50 yeas!

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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