The Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra is not a single group, but five separate student string orchestras at different levels of experience. All five of them, with as many conductors, got together last Saturday at Palo Alto’s First United Methodist Church to honor the 50th anniversary of the organization’s founding by the late William Whitson. It was a sparkling celebratory occasion.

PACO’s current longtime music director, and regular conductor of the senior orchestra, Benjamin Simon, hosted the occasion. Guest speakers, going all the way back to members of the first ensemble in 1966, appeared between the program items. Board president Bill Harris and current senior orchestra concertmaster Shawna Chen both made the point that PACO is a cooperative environment, not a competitive one. That’s something that the stressful experience of growing up in Palo Alto sorely needs.

From listening to the five ensembles, it’s clear that even the most junior of them have sufficient skill at ensemble playing and group intonation to make them pleasant to hear, while the older groups are better than that, adding some skill at effects and interpretive character to their playing. All the ensembles are at their best in opening sections of works, having a little more struggle later on.

The PACO repertoire is widespread. The senior orchestra has taken recently to commissioning new works, to give its players practice in contemporary music. One such work began the concert, a 50th Anniversary Overture by Camden Boyle, a PACO alumnus now studying at Juilliard. It had the vigor and style of 20th-century British string orchestra music, and was well-gauged for the students’ abilities.

The program was particularly strong on music that quotes other music in pastiche. The senior orchestra will be taking on tour Peter Heidrich’s “Happy Birthday Variations,” which cleverly inserts that tune into accompaniments stolen from famous composers, like Dvorak’s American Quartet. The Preparatory Orchestra, one of the junior ensembles, played a similar mashup with bits of various other famous tunes, like “Auld Lang Syne,” inserted into the first movement of Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.”

Lastly, the senior orchestra played a movement from Astor Piazzolla’s “Four Seasons of Buenos Aires” to which the arranger had inserted quotes from Antonio Vivaldi’s original “Four Seasons.” The violin soloist was Robin Sharp, another PACO alumna, now concertmaster of Simon’s professional ensemble, the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra.

At the other end of soloist experience, a movement from Vivaldi’s “Spring” season from the senior orchestra had for solo violin Sophie Au, 10, a member of SuperStrings, the most junior ensemble. This was, I suspect, her first solo performance, and she benefited from some nudging from conductor Michel Taddei as to when to bow and when to shake hands with the concertmaster. The vigor and energy she brought to her playing were admirable.

The concert also featured the Debut Orchestra, the number three group, conducted by Eugene Sor in the Jig from Holst’s St. Paul Suite, SuperStrings led by Kris Yenney in a collection of Scandinavian folk tunes, and the Sinfonia Orchestra, the number two group, under Jory Funkuchen, in an arrangement of the Britney Spears song “Toxic” with some notable uses of slide playing.

For a big finale, all the orchestras at once, plus as many alumni as wanted to join in, crowded up for a conductorless but admirably coherent version of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. Bach left a blank spot in the manuscript for players to insert their own slow movement. Here that part was filled by the Preparatory Orchestra with a touching rendition of Jay Ungar’s “Ashokan Farewell,” the music from Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary. For the Bach itself, the work of some 150 string players at once was the biggest, Bachiest sound ever. Even Leopold Stokowski would have been impressed, and William Whitson would be proud of what his successors have accomplished.

PACO would like to hear from any uncontacted alumni at info@pacomusic.org or (650) 856-3848.

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