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PACO returns to the Allen Elizabethan stage

The Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra — an award-winning youth orchestra made up of San Francisco Bay Area string musicians of high-school age or younger — strives to set the standard for other youth programs around the country.

The organization's five ensembles — SuperStrings, Preparatory, Debut, Sinfonia and Senior PACO — are made up of about 25 members each. The five groups rehearse weekly and show their commitment to the arts at their live performances.

PACO’s emphasis on chamber music sets the youth orchestra apart and lies at the core of its educational success. At all levels, competitiveness is minimized in favor of cooperation, and each player is equally valuable to the whole.

The orchestra makes its annual sojourn to perform at 8 p.m. Monday, June 26, in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 15 S. Pioneer St., Ashland. Tickets are $14, $12 for seniors, $6 for students, and can be purchased at osfashland.org or by calling 800-219-8161.

Founded in 1966 by William Whitson, who served as the orchestra’s music director for 36 years,  Benjamin Simon continues the orchestra's tradition

The group will present a program featuring cellist and PACO alum Eric Gainslen, with Suites for Cello and String Orchestra by California composer Lou Harrison and Camille Saint-Saens' "Allegro Appasionato."

Four of PACO's senior violinists will join forces with Ashland's Siskiyou Violins, directed by Faina Podolnaya, to perform Antonio Vivaldi's Concerto in B minor. Rounding out the concert, PACO will take center stage for composer Anton Webern's "Langsamer Sats" and Felix Mendelssohn's String Symphony No. 2.

It's notable that by the time members of PACO's senior orchestra reach the Allen Elizabethan Theatre's stage, many of them have played together up as long as 10 years, honing their craft.

Gaenslen has performed as a chamber musician, recitalist and guest soloist in venues across North America and Europe. As cellist of the Rossetti String Quartet, Gaenslen performed in Amsterdam, at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Berlin Konzerthaus and at the Maverick and Vail Bravo music festivals and Festival del Sole.

One of his collaborations was the Gian Carlo Menotti Suite for two cellos and piano with Gautier Capucon and Jean-Yves Thibaudet in Spoleto, Italy, for the composer’s 95th birthday. He also performed with the Ying and Enso String Quartets. Solo highlights include the world premiere of Siddartha for cello and string orchestra, by Laura Carnibucci, and a performance of Bloch's Shelomo at New York's Avery Fisher Hall. From 2009 to 2011, Gaenslen was acting principal cellist for the Seattle Symphony Orchestra.

Gaenslen gives master classes in cello and chamber music across the country and has worked with students at the University of Missouri, Kansas City; State University New York at Purchase; California State Universities at Fresno, Northridge and Long Beach; the Brevard Music Center; and Cornish College and the University of Western Washington. He has held faculty positions at the Mannes College in New York and at the University of California, Santa Cruz. From 2013 to 2015,  Gaenslen was artist-in-residence at University of Washington where he instructed the undergraduate cello majors as well as doctoral students.

Gaenslen now teaches privately in Burlingame and Palo Alto, California, and maintains a career in performance.

He holds a bachelor's degree from Yale University and a masters from the Juilliard School. His teachers included Joel Krosnick, Robert Mann, Aldo Parisot, William Pleeth and Irene Sharp.

Music director Simon performed for audiences around the world as a violist with the New World String Quartet, the Stanford String Quartet, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and the Los Angeles and New York philharmonic orchestras.

A native of San Francisco, Simon studied conducting with Denis DeCouteau, continuing at Yale College and the Juilliard School with Otto Werner Mueller and at the Aspen Music Festival with Dennis Russell Davies. He's led orchestras and contemporary ensembles in the U.S. and Europe. He's taught at Harvard and Stanford universities, and he's been a member of the music faculty at University of California at Berkeley since 1998.

Simon also served as director of Crowden School in Berkeley from 1999 to 2002, where he founded the popular chamber music series “Sundays at Four.” In 2002, he was appointed director of the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra. That same year, he began working with PACO.

Benjamin Simons conducts the Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra. [Photo by Kopol Bonick]