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October 21, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, October 21, 2005

Lasting strings Lasting strings (October 21, 2005)

The Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra celebrates 40 years of instilling the love of chamber music in young people

by Diana Reynolds Roome

The fiery beat of Bartók's Roumanian Dance bounces off the walls of the small rehearsal room that has been Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra's workplace for almost four decades.

Superstrings -- the most junior of PACO's five string ensembles -- is rehearsing at Cubberley Community Center in Palo Alto, and Kris Yenney is coaxing a more authentic rhythm out of her young musicians, some of whom are small enough to play half-size instruments. The sound now coming from the first violins is remarkably rich and resonant, as the wild gypsy melody ascends over the deep accented drone coming from cellos and violas.

"Lots of bow!" Yenney calls. "Even when the chords change, it's a steady stroke like a big hurdy-gurdy. This is gutsy music; we need more gristle."

Sometimes, when words aren't adequate, Yenney resorts to drama.

"Everybody growl!" she says. "This is not polite music here."

The young players' grimaces look more like rueful grins, yet when they play the passage again it has more feeling.

"Whatever that was, it was much improved," Yenney says with a laugh. "You've got the character down. Now you guys have to work harder to play quieter."

These 17 players (four first violins, four second violins, four violas and five cellos) are now firmly focused on the minutiae of the notes in front of them. And the work they put in at this early stage will help carry them forward as they move through the five orchestra levels.

Yenney directs the Superstrings orchestra and the next level up, Preparatory Orchestra. As students grow in experience, they can then progress through the Debut Ensemble and Sinfonia and then into senior PACO.

Once committed, few leave PACO. By the time they reach the senior levels they're playing with a polish and musicality that frequently draws critical acclaim and caused the celebrated violinist Itzhak Perlman to say, "This amazing group of musicians is one of the finest and most talented I have heard," according to his daughter, a pianist who once played with PACO.

Over the past four decades, PACO has offered opportunities for many young string players. The first chamber group, started by violinist William Whitson in his parents' house on Waverley Street in 1965, quickly branched to three. Within the next decade there were five orchestras for different ages and levels of musical experience, recalled Whitson's wife Margaret, a violist who also managed the orchestras for 25 years.

Soon the musicians were gaining recognition as performers, particularly the senior orchestra, which produced many students who went on to play professionally and teach music.

But this was not just about the applause, Margaret Whitson said: her husband was determined to hold on to the essential spirit of chamber music. This meant intimate groups that play for the sheer pleasure of it, in a room rather than a concert hall. The music was small-scale and exquisite, mostly baroque and classical pieces by Bach, Corelli, Vivaldi, Handel, Mozart and Haydn.

Encouraged by William Whitson, the players also formed smaller groups, practicing in quartets and trios. They played together in the evenings and at an annual summer workshop, and performed at Ashland, Tahoe and Dunsmuir, where the Whitsons had strong community ties.

"In essence it was all about human relationships," Margaret Whitson said.

William (known to friends as Bill) died in August 2001, still deeply engaged in PACO. The PACO ties were also strong for many others, his wife said -- enduring friendships flourished and ultimately marriages.

"A billboard took up a whole wall in our home, showing the PACO offspring, and now the offspring of offspring," she said.

One of today's Superstrings players is the daughter of two PACO alumni, who still play. Alumni who went on to professional careers and regularly return to perform in concerts.

For example, violinist Krista Bennion, who joined PACO in 1968, is now music director of the New Century Chamber Orchestra in San Francisco and co-concertmaster of the Orchestra of St. Luke's in New York City. She'll join senior PACO for its Oct. 29 performance, playing the solo in Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 1 in B-flat major.

Other PACO alumni will play with the orchestra throughout its anniversary season, including Tanya Gabrielian, a pianist and 2000 graduate who will take part in the Dec. 17 concert.

Evan Jeng, 17, a violinist who has played with PACO since he started with Superstrings in fifth grade, relishes the way the group's familial quality affects the music.

"The key thing is blending as one sound, adding your voice to the entire score. There's a lot of communication going on; it's quite different from playing solo, when you want to distinguish yourself," said Jeng, who is concertmaster of the senior ensemble and will be a soloist in a Bach concerto next summer. His younger brother Edwin is violinist and concertmaster in the Sinfonia.

This sense of community is still highly valued by Ben Simon, who became PACO's director in 2002. William Whitson's loss was profoundly felt, but Simon, a viola player with professional groups including the Stanford String Quartet, is endeavoring to carry on the tradition, while adding some new elements.

Firstly, the link with Stanford has given PACO a more prominent platform for its concerts, which will take place at Dinkelspiel Auditorium on campus this year rather than at Spangenberg Theatre at Gunn High School.

Simon has also taken the idea of community in a new direction by adding more service to PACO's commitments.

PACO now plays more concerts on a volunteer basis, including making music at the Lucile Packard Children's Hospital, senior centers around town, and a community holiday concert in Pescadero. The musicians have also played in Dunsmuir near Mount Shasta, raising money for the town's botanical garden.

Musicians from Sinfonia and senior PACO work every week with fourth- and fifth-graders at Willow Oaks Elementary School in Menlo Park, using donated instruments to teach children rhythm, notes and musical games.

In the past three years, the repertoire has also grown and changed. Modern composers such as Shostakovitch and Barber are now played more often, as well as contemporary composers Osvaldo Golijov and Aaron Kernis.

This season, Bay Area composer Nancy Bloomer-Deussen and Australian composer Thomas Goss will attend Debut and Sinfonia rehearsals of their pieces.

In another new endeavor, PACO's "Youth for Youth" program, funded by the orchestra, solicits new works by young composers for PACO to perform. This year's first commission, awarded to 17-year-old San Franciscan Matthew Cmiel, will be played at PACO's fourth concert and its June tour.

PACO's core repertoire remains classical and romantic, so such events as a Bach celebration are still an important part of the year. Simon particularly enjoys introducing works written by composers when they were young, and tells his groups that Mendelssohn was 11 years old when he wrote some of his string symphonies, while Mozart wrote his first violin concerto when he was a teenager.

By its very nature, chamber music is small-scale, so the ensembles cannot grow much larger -- a factor that makes getting into PACO competitive because there are few available slots and students don't usually leave until they go off to college.

Simon, though, says playing isn't a competition.

"PACO has won trophies and gold medals, but this is about the joy of music-making, not just a bunch of highly trained, gifted kids," he said. "Music is not a competitive sport."

Back in the rehearsal hall, Yenney, who started playing cello with PACO in 1967 at the age of 11, listens carefully to her students' comments and suggestions, at one point taking a vote on whether a passage should be played with or without fingers on the D string.

This follows in the tradition of Whitson, who many said included students in the decision-making process and believed in their ability to take responsibility. His teaching style was non-hierarchical and humorous, and Simon too finds that this approach helps when students are already pressured enough by their academic schedules.

"Music needs to be balanced in a healthy life," said Simon, who does not necessarily encourage students to go into a music career. "It's something you can enjoy for the rest of your life as a fine amateur player. I'm trying to infect everyone with the chamber music bug, not get them into Juilliard."

The students suspect that their friends outside PACO may not be infected. "It seems arcane to them," said Jeng, who aims to major in science or engineering when he goes to university, despite his commitment to music. "At PACO it's a very different group of people who understand and care."

But the future doesn't look entirely bleak for chamber music while such orchestras continue to nurture new talent and enthusiasm.

"It's surprisingly popular," said Carol Kutsch, a professional violinist and PACO charter member who has taught many PACO students over the years. "If students can play in small ensembles they can play anything. Once they try it, they find the joy of this type of music."

What: PACO opens its 2005-06 season with "Darkness and Light," a senior orchestra concert featuring PACO alumna Krista Bennion. The program will include music by Mozart, Mendelssohn, Vivaldi and Shostakovitch. Other concerts by senior PACO and the other orchestra levels will be held throughout the season.

Where: Dinkelspiel Auditorium, Stanford University

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 29

Cost: Tickets are $12 general, $8 for seniors and $6 for students.

Info: Call (650) 856-3848 or go to


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