1966 was quite a year: Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California, gas was 32 cents a gallon, Star Trek premiered on television, and in the living room of William Whitson, a well-known teacher and avid chamber musician, the seeds of the Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra were sown.
At PACO, budding string players could make music in a small ensemble setting where cooperation was essential, listening skills were honed, and each voice played an important part. Taking root in our fertile musical community, PACO blossomed over the decades, now an internationally lauded collective of five strings-only chamber orchestras, drawing exceptional young musicians grades 3 through 12 from every corner of the Bay Area to our SuperStrings, Preparatory, Debut, Sinfonia, and Senior PACO ensembles.
William Whitson led PACO until 2002, when violist and conductor Benjamin Simon became the second Music Director in PACO’s history. Originally, the orchestras concentrated on Baroque music. Now, PACO performs masterworks for string orchestra from all periods, as well as major concertos and symphonies. Within the organization’s current five levels, training continues to focus entirely on strings, with each orchestra maintaining an average of 25 members. Experienced wind, brass and percussion guest musicians are added when required by the repertoire.
In June 2016 PACO celebrated its 50th anniversary that attracted alumni from around the world to a special Anniversary Concert in Palo Alto.
William Whitson, founder, conductor, and music director of the Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra for its first thirty-seven years, was also a respected violinist and teacher. He studied with the late Boris Sirpo of Portland, Naoum Blinder of San Francisco and Louis Persinger of New York, and developed his chamber music repertoire and style under the influence of the late Adolph Baller. In addition to conducting, he coached and taught a full private studio in Palo Alto.
Mr. Whitson established and was violinist of several chamber ensembles beginning as early as high school. His first chamber orchestra with adult musicians premiered in Palo Alto, August 1959. During military service, Mr. Whitson headed the string section of the U.S. Army Continental Command Band, performed in numerous orchestras and studied at The Julliard School of Music. As founder and violinist of the Whitson, Bell’ Arte and Nohant Trios, he performed throughout the U.S., Canada and the West Indies.
In 1966, Mr. Whitson founded the Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra, and the following year initiated the Palo Alto Twilight Concerts, an outdoor chamber music series that ran for 24 seasons. He conducted Junior and Training PACO orchestras in their own separate concert seasons. Dating back to 1980, a series of recordings, which he began, have professionally preserved many of PACO orchestras’ top quality performances. A Bach Celebration! founded by Mr. Whitson, premiered in 1985 as an annual chamber music series of Bach’s works which are performed by talented PACO musicians and graduates as well as guest artists.
Mr. Whitson led the orchestra on numerous tours, both nationally and internationally, over the three and a half decades of his PACO career. He conducted PACO on twelve international tours to over fifteen countries on four continents. As an innovative musician and teacher, Mr. Whitson’s commitment to musical excellence and outstanding work with young musicians spanned 35 years. He received many awards and citations, the D.A.R. Medal of Honor, and personal congratulations from Itzhak Perlman, the U.S. Congress, and the President of the United States.