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Chamber music under the stars

Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra, the award-winning, 125-member youth ensemble directed by Benjamin Simon, will make its annual appearance in Southern Oregon at 8 p.m. Monday, June 22, on the Elizabeth Stage of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 15 S. Pioneer St., Ashland.

The youth orchestra for regional string musicians of high-school age and younger was founded in 1966 by local violinist, teacher and conductor William Whitson, who served as the orchestra's music director for 36 years. Violist Benjamin Simon was appointed music director in 2002.

Originally, the orchestra concentrated on Baroque music. Now it performs chamber compositions, major concertos and symphonies from all periods. Within the organization's current five levels, training continues to focus entirely on strings, with each level maintaining a maximum of 28 members. Experienced wind, brass and percussion guest musicians are added when required by the repertoire.

Members have frequent opportunities to perform chamber music, including a summer chamber music workshop that attracts faculty from across the country. Community outreach programs bring smaller ensembles into venues around the Bay Area, including local charitable organizations.

Since its founding, the orchestra has performed internationally and produced dozens of recordings. This year's orchestra is about to embark on an East Coast tour that will include concerts in Boston, New Haven, Conn., Baltimore and New York City, making its Lincoln Center debut in the newly renovated Alice Tully Hall.

Palo Alto has become recognized as an award-winning orchestra. In the words of violinist Itzhak Perlman, "this amazing group of musicians is one of the finest and most talented I have heard."

The program for the Ashland performance will feature soloist Peter Lemberg, principal oboist of the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, in the Oboe Concerto in G minor by George Frideric Handel. According to Simon, Handel (1685-1759) was the most famous composer of the Baroque era, much better known than his contemporary Johann Sebastian Bach. "Handel wrote beautiful instrumental concerti, of which this oboe concerto is a fine early example," Simon said.

An unusual work by Mozart will be performed. "'Adagio and Fugue' is a late work," Simon explained, "that artfully blends Mozart's mastery of 'old-fashioned' counterpoint with the melodic beauty of the 'new classical' style. The piece is extremely adventurous harmonically, and points directly to Beethoven and his later experiments in tonality."

The orchestra also will present the Oregon premiere of a new work commissioned through Palo Alto's Youth-for-Youth project. Each season, the orchestra calls for scores written by composers under the age of 21 to be premiered and performed by its musicians. Stephen Feigenbaum, a Yale undergraduate, is the composer of "Monsoon Season" and the fourth annual project winner.

In case of rain, the concert will be held in the Angus Bowmer Theatre with festival seating.

Tickets are $12 general, $10 for members of Jefferson Public Radio Listeners' Guild, Chamber Music Concerts, OSF and seniors, $5 for students.

For tickets and information, call 482-4331.

Members of the Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra. - Photo courtesy of PACO