Interview with John Lenz, former cellist and horn player with the Argenta Trio

Conducted by Forrest Hartman


Name: John Lenz

Age: 64

City of Residence: Reno, NV

Years with Argenta: 1972 to 2009






Forrest: You come from a well-known Reno family with a lot of musicians in it. In fact, I sometimes find it difficult to keep your family’s musical tree straight. How many Lenzes are involved in music?


John: Lots of them. All my siblings were involved in one way or another, and I have six brothers and sisters; two sisters and four brothers. Two of them don’t live in Reno anymore. One lives in Montana. She’s a pianist and organist, but she’s pretty much retired from doing anything there. My youngest brother is a violinist, but he had to pretty much quit playing professionally because he’s a mining engineer. He’s a big shot with Newmont now. He’s the successful one of us financially, but he doesn’t get much chance to play anymore. The rest of them are all pretty active still.


Forrest: Did your parents push for all of you to play music?


John: You’d have to say that my dad was an avid music lover who felt that he had no musical talent, which I don’t think was true. But that’s the way he always felt. As far as pushing for it, not in the manner that (former Argenta violinist) Phillip Ruder describes. He says he didn’t know anything other than music from the time he was small because he was pushed into it. You know, he was practicing hours and hours everyday and not going out and playing Little League or all the other things that most kids get to do. It wasn’t like that for us. We did start with piano lessons when we were fairly young, 5 years old or so. At least a few of us started on piano, and then we started other instruments as we became interested in them. Sometimes that was in school. For instance, I didn’t start horn until I was in junior high school, and that was because the band director at that school was a bass player that I knew from an orchestra I played in at the university. He suggested that I take up another instrument and play in his band. So, I did. At any rate, as far as our parents pushing us to play, my mother would strongly encourage us to get our practicing done. We were all required to practice some everyday. Not a lot. Not hours. But a half hour, 45 minutes, an hour a day, something like that. Often that was in lieu of doing the dishes or some other onerous chore. So, both of my sisters ran for the piano when it was time to finish dinner.  


Forrest: You say your father wasn’t a musician. Was your mother?


John: My mother did play some piano, and her mother had been a piano teacher in rural Minnesota when she was small. So, she had a little bit of a background in music. She didn’t play a lot, but she at least played some.


Forrest: Your father was a physician, correct?


John: Yes. He was a surgeon.


Forrest: We’ve all heard stories about sibling rivalry. With all the kids in your family playing, did you have musical rivalries or were you mostly supportive of one another?


John: I would say we were more supportive than anything else. I don’t think there was any strong competition between players. For one thing, we didn’t, for the most part, play the same instrument… I play cello and my brother Peter plays cello, but I was Peter’s teacher for a number of years because I was enough older than he was that it wasn’t like a competition. My two sisters play piano. They may have competed a little bit. I don’t know how it was from their perspective, but it doesn’t seem that way now. Mainly, the competition was to get to the instrument. We only had one piano, so if they wanted to practice, they had to get there first.


Forrest: Did you play together when you were kids?


John: Some. My sisters accompanied us a lot, playing piano for us. And sometimes we played chamber music with a little larger groups. Eventually, it got to the point where my brothers and I – those who played brass instruments – would play brass trios together. But we didn’t do it a lot. That happened more when we were in college than when we were younger because it takes a while to get to the point where you are proficient… As far as your proficiency, there’s quite a bit of space between someone who’s 20 and someone who is 13.


Forrest: With most of the family playing different instruments, how did you decide which one to focus on?


John: I started on piano, as did my older siblings, Lisa and Andrea. Our piano teacher had a boyfriend who was a cellist. We visited her in Carson City on one occasion, and he handed me his cello, tuned it up and showed me how to hold it. While they went about the rest of their business, I sat in the room with his cello and had a fine time playing around on it for an hour or two. My parents felt that was a sign that the cello was maybe my instrument. So, they rented a cello, and I started on it. 


Forrest: What age was that?


John: I think I was probably 6 or 7.


Forrest: Pretty young still.


John: Yes. Anyway, I took cello lessons from then on. When I was about 11, my cello teacher was the violin teacher at the university, (former Argenta member) Rusty Goddard, who later became a colleague. I played in his orchestra at the university starting about that time because it was a community orchestra. It was not terribly good, but a lot of people from the community played in it, and it was the best orchestra in town at the time. This would have been in about 1960. One of the bass players was the band director at my junior high school, and he asked me to come play in his band. That’s why I started playing band instruments. I played trombone for one year, but I’d always been interested in the horn for some reason, probably just because I liked the sound of it. When a horn became available, I grabbed it up and started playing the horn.


Forrest: In other interviews, colleagues have told me that they are amazed by your ability to play two instruments at such a high level.  Has it been hard for you to maintain both the cello and the horn at a professional standard?


John: In some ways, my job as a university teacher helped because I taught both cello and horn, among other things. Because of that, you get a chance to play your instrument frequently. During the week, you would play at lessons or rehearsals or whatever. That kind of helped. Also, I think that I was blessed with enough natural talent that I didn’t have to practice hours on each instrument in order to maintain proficiency. I did have to practice hours when I was preparing for something on any particular instrument, but it wasn’t as if I had to do that to maintain proficiency. Some people are that way, and some people just have to work constantly to play at the level in which they want to maintain their playing. In that respect, I guess I was just blessed with enough talent not to have to do that. That being said, I find that since I retired from the university, I haven’t been playing as much cello. I’ve been playing the horn a lot. When I pick up the cello and play it, it definitely feels like I need to woodshed for at least a few weeks or a month in order to get strength back. You do have to play almost daily in order to stay proficient on your instruments. 


Forrest: Does the fact that you’ve been playing more horn mean it’s your favorite?


John: It’s because I play principal horn in the Chamber Orchestra and the Philharmonic here. I’m not playing in any ensembles on cello currently. Since I left the university, I’m no longer in Argenta, and that was the main chamber outlet I had for a long time. I did play in Telluride for 30 years, but that festival had to cut back on personnel. So, the Reno contingent – pianist Jim Winn and myself and my daughter, (violinist) Ruth (Lenz) – had to bow out of that… Also, I didn’t play in the Nevada Chamber Music Festival last Christmas because it was my turn to rotate out. Those were really my only regular outlets for playing. I usually play a benefit or two for the Chamber Orchestra in the summer, and I will probably be doing that again. But, as I said, except for a few lessons once in awhile, I haven’t had that many opportunities to play cello.


Forrest: Obviously your ear and musical knowledge translate to both instruments but – as an outsider – it seems like the techniques for playing your two instruments are completely different.  


John: That’s true, but they do share the same range. Also, they are fairly similar in tone quality, at least as similar as you can get going from a brass instrument to a string instrument. Of course, musical things are universal. Technique-wise, it’s definitely different. I also have millions of other interests and things to keep me busy. That’s another reason why I probably don’t get enough practicing done on cello. Just for my own fun, I always seem to be busy doing something else.  


Forrest: I would say it’s healthy to have other things going on.


John: Well, it definitely makes things entertaining. That and grandkids.


Forrest: Some of your siblings went on to become professional musicians like you. Others chose completely different careers. It doesn’t sound like your parents applied any pressure on you to become a pro. Was there a time when you decided you were definitely going into music as a career?


John: Kind of. It was because it’s what I had spent the largest percentage of my study on as a school kid. When I started college, I was considering pre-med. That’s not because my dad pushed me toward that. In fact, he pretty much did the opposite. He said, “There are millions of doctors. There aren’t that many cellists in the world who are good.” As I said, he was a music lover. If anybody pushed music, it was my dad. Both my brother, Mark, and I started out thinking in terms of pre-med when we went to college, and both of us switched to music after a short time because we were doing all the music study anyway. You’re playing in the ensembles, and it seemed like that’s what we wanted to spend our time doing… I got my bachelor’s degree in music here at UNR, then went to New England Conservatory of Music and got a master’s. At the same time, I was in ROTC at the university and got commissioned as a lieutenant when I graduated. I then had a deferment for two years to finish my grad school, which I finished in ’72. At that time, Vietnam was winding down, and they didn’t need all those lieutenants they had in the pipeline, including me. So, instead of spending four years or two years on active duty in the Army, I went to the reserves. At the same time, Rusty Goddard called me from UNR that summer. He said the cello position that they had open, that they wanted me to take a year or two before but lost funding for, had come open again. He asked if I was interested, and I said I was. I ended up getting that job at the university in ’72, and that was that.


Forrest: You had planned on becoming an active-duty Army officer?


John: Well, I had planned to do that not because I was necessarily interested in an Army career but because I had a low draft number and I would have been drafted if I hadn’t had a student deferment at the time. I figured if I was going to go in the Army, I’d be better off as an officer, so I could maintain what skills I had and so on and so forth. That’s why I went to ROTC. I don’t regret that. I spent eight years in the Army Reserves after that. It wasn’t a great time to be in the Army because the Army hit a low point after Vietnam for a decade, as far as support and morale. Still, I met a lot of people and learned a lot about other walks of life.


Forrest: What did you do as a reservist?


John: When I went through ROTC, I was in the Signal Corp. But when I joined the unit here, it was an engineering unit. First of all, it was water purification, which seemed kind of strange. After awhile, it changed to combat engineering, and I’ve always been interested in that kind of thing. That was good in that I found it interesting.


Forrest: And it was something completely different than music.


John: Completely.


Forrest: Did you get your master’s and doctorate at New England Conservatory?


John: Just a master’s. I don’t have a doctorate. At that time, among string players particularly, the master’s was pretty much considered the terminal degree. Not very many people had doctorates. Interestingly, of the violinists who have been in Argenta, Rusty Goddard had a master’s; Phillip Ruder, I think, has a master’s; the current violinist, Stephanie S’ant Ambrogio has a master’s. Although nowadays everybody at the university seems like they have a doctorate, it wasn’t necessarily considered that critical then, particularly in string playing. There are so many other jobs string players can do outside teaching that don’t require those degrees. Some of the best violinists I’ve known either have no degrees or have maybe an Artist’s Diploma or something because they just played for a living.  


Forrest: Two other UNR professors and Argenta players – Jim Winn and Dave Ehrke – were both at New England Conservatory at the same time as you. Was that pure coincidence?


John: Between Dave and myself, it was pure coincidence. He was from San Francisco, and after he was at the Conservatory, he went to USC and finished his doctorate. Then, he was teaching high school band in Chester, CA. At the time he came to UNR, we had a search for a clarinet teacher and the search failed for some reason. Of the candidates we had, none were satisfactory. So, we needed an emergency teacher at the end of the summer. The chairman at the time, called Mitchell Lurie down at USC. He was the clarinet professor there, and he happened to be Ehrke’s teacher. The chair asked him if he had any recommendations of someone who could fill in on a regular basis. Lurie said, “I just happen to know somebody who’s not too far from you.” He called Dave, and Dave called us. He came down, and I suppose he auditioned. He’s a fine clarinetist, and he got a one-year contract. After a year, I think they had another search, and he won that search. He’s been there ever since. He and I knew each other at New England, but I wouldn’t say we were close friends… Jim Winn, on the other hand, was an undergrad when I was a grad student. I recognized that he was a great pianist, and we happened to be living in the same dorm. We started playing chamber music together, and pretty soon we played a lot of chamber music together there. We were in various groups. We hung out, and he and I and a few other students remained friends for a long time after that. He played my recitals for me there. When I got the job back at Nevada, I kept that friendship alive. He’d come out here in the summer, and we’d play chamber music festivals and concerts together. I’d always arrange that sort of thing, and I did that for many years. I also got him involved in playing a few other places, like in Telluride. So, when we did have a piano job available here, he was interested because he had a lot of friends in Reno as a result of our relationship. So, he applied for this job and, of course, got it because he is a phenomenal musician. I always figured one of the best things I ever did for the UNR music department was get Jim Winn here.


Forrest: It was fortuitous for you to land a job at UNR right after college. Was that always a goal? When you were pursuing your degree, did you hope to come back to Reno or were you planning to go wherever the jobs took you?


John: I did hope that would happen, but I didn’t anticipate that it would. I have always been sort of a homeboy. I like Nevada, and I have a lot of friends here, and my family has always been important to me. I did want to come back here, but I really didn’t anticipate that it would be a job that I would get. Rusty Goddard always used to say it was great for a musician to be a college teacher because there is so much variety in it. You get to not only play in various kinds of ensembles and solo things, but you get to teach and you get to remain active in all sorts of music. And it was a fairly secure job once you were tenured, which a lot of musical jobs weren’t. Anyway, he got me interested in that kind of a career, but I hadn’t really anticipated it. I supposed that after I got out of college, I would audition for orchestras and things like all my other friends back at the conservatory were doing. It’s just that he caught me at the end of my last semester and asked me if I was interested in the job. I was very lucky. I have to say, it took me quite a few years of on-the-job training to really feel like I was proficient. You don’t really train as a college teacher at a conservatory. You train to play your instrument and to understand music. You are not really trained as a teacher. I’ve had that discussion with my older son who is a public school teacher. Right now, he teaches science at Traner Middle School in Reno, but his degree was in history primarily. He taught that in high school as well. Speaking of the Army, he’s also spent quite a few years in the Army. He’s been to Afghanistan and everything else because he’s in the National Guard. We were commenting that he’s taken all these education classes. People going into secondary education or primary education take tons of courses learning how to teach, but university teachers almost never take any classes learning how to teach. You just go in there and, all of a sudden, you’re teaching. So, not all of them are good. Those who don’t start good, hopefully get better as the years go on. Hopefully, that happened to me.


Forrest: It sounds like it was great spending your entire career at home, but do you ever look back and wish you had auditioned for some of the big orchestras?


John: I am pleased with how it worked out. There were lots of things that I did enjoy doing as far as playing. I enjoyed playing with the people from Telluride and other places, but I always felt that I had the best of all worlds here. The orchestras here are getting pretty good now, but for many years they were not that great. My sister-in-law, Ginny (former Argenta member Virginia Blakeman-Lenz), used to say, “You should come down to San Francisco with me. It would be a really great experience for you to play with such a wonderful orchestra.” She does that all the time. I guess I never really felt that strongly that I wanted to do that. I had plenty here. I’m not the only one of my siblings who came back home. Mark went away and played in the Rochester Philharmonic for 12 years. Then, he decided to go to law school because he wanted a more secure living. Rochester was having financial difficulties, and it wasn’t easy getting another job as a trombone player. So, he ended up coming back to Reno again, but as a lawyer. He did play for a number of years here as well. Peter got his degrees in mining engineering, and one of the reasons that he took the job he did… is because it allowed him to work in a mine that was close enough to Reno that he could stay in the orchestra and continue to play. On the other hand, my brother, Joel, who is also in mining, ended up in Battle Mountain. He did play in the Philharmonic for several years after he started working there, but that’s sort of a long commute.  


Forrest: You were in Argenta during the early days. Can you talk about those times?


John: In a way I was there in the earliest days because, as I told you, I studied with the violinist of the group when it first started. I was only 11 years old when I first started taking lessons with him and playing in the orchestra. So, I knew what they were doing even though I was not the cellist in the group. Ron Williams and Rusty Goddard were the two faculty members that were in the music department. They always had to find a cellist to make a trio. There was a cellist who I think worked in the library at the university for awhile. Wendell Mordy, who was with the Desert Research Institute, played for awhile with them as a trio. They didn’t actually get a faculty cellist until 1966 when I became a student there. I graduated from high school and went to the university. Rusty Goddard always said they hired a cellist just so they had somebody to teach me. Geoff Rutkowski was that cellist, and he was in the trio for two years.  That was his first college teaching job, and he went to teach at Santa Barbara for the rest of his career. He left in ’68. Then, Louis Richmond was hired, and he came from ’68 to ’70. They didn’t have a faculty cellist for the two years I was gone. They did have a Letter of Appointment person. Then, I started teaching in ’72 and was there until I retired.


Forrest: Did the dynamic of the group change much during your time at UNR?


John: It changed. The group had its ups and downs as far as the amount of effort we all put into it. At least initially, it was something we did on the side. And, of course, it wasn’t called Argenta at first. I think Ron Williams called it the Bell’Arte Trio early on. It was also called the Wiegand Trio for a time in honor of a major UNR donor. Then, during the ’80s, Rusty Goddard retired and we went through a number of violinists. Roy Malan played off and on when we were looking for full-time people. Then we hired Won-Bin Yim. He played for four years. Sometime in there, the group became the Argenta at the suggestion of Ron Williams. Then, Won-Bin left to take a job back east and Cynthia Lang came and played four years. Then, she left and went back to Michigan, I think. Phillip Ruder was hired at that point and stayed for a long time. Each violinist brought something different to the group. Rusty Goddard had spent so much of his career developing younger players, trying to build a string program in Reno, that his specialty wasn’t being a concert violinist. Even though he was a good violinist, it was a lot harder work for him to play in the trios than some of the people like Won-Bin, who came straight out of a doctoral program in violin, or Phillip, who had spent his entire career playing as a professional violinist in a major orchestra. We didn’t play as many concerts when Rusty was the violinist in the group. When he left, we played a bit more. We didn’t really kick it into high gear as far as number of performances or variety of programming until Phillip came and Ginny joined the group for a couple years. Then, we got to do more programs. We played in more places and repeated programs once in awhile. That always helps when you get to learn a program and play it more than once. And we would rehearse fairly regularly, a couple times a week. There were times, early on, when sometimes we wouldn’t rehearse for a month or two because we didn’t have any particular programs going and people were busy teaching. In those early years, it seemed like we had a lot more classroom teaching to do than they do now. I taught lots of different classes. I can’t even name them all but things like conducting, orchestration, form, theory and fundamentals. Sometimes you’d be teaching several classes a day in addition to your lessons and whatever ensembles you coached. You didn’t have as much time to plan on rehearsing a morning a week or two mornings a week as we did later on when they cut back on the teaching expectations.


Forrest: Did you find that each violinist had different interests, leading to repertoire shifts?


John: Each one had their favorites. With Rusty, we played pretty much standard repertoire. You know, the traditional Mendelssohn, Brahms, Beethoven trios. When we got to play more programs we were covering more literature. Won-Bin and I also played duo concerts together. In fact, I went to Korea with him, and we did some concerts in Korea. When both Phillip and Ginny were playing, we played a lot of piano quartet literature. That was fun. That was a new thing that we hadn’t done much of. Also, because the graduate quartets were established when Phillip came to campus, we usually had some good grad students. So, we would often incorporate, for one program during the year, another instrument. We might do some string quintets or piano quintets as well as our usual quartets and trios… Of course, when Jim Winn joined the group, he being a phenomenal pianist and also having spent a lot of time doing new music in New York, that was an angle that we did a little more of. So, yes, each person brought a little bit of a shift. But as far as repertoire goes, I think the biggest factor was that we played a lot more programs as time went on. When you’re playing a lot more programs, it’s natural that you’d start looking further for interesting literature because you have that much more literature you want to prepare… We tried not to repeat things too often unless it was a situation where we were called on to play a program and wanted something worked up fast.


Forrest: You played with a lot of fine musicians in Argenta, many of whom are still active. Do you stay in touch with any of them?


John: Other than Jim Winn, the person I keep most in touch with is Phillip. I stopped and saw him a couple of months ago on my way back from Portland, after visiting my daughter. Won-Bin, I hear from once in awhile, but not too often. The same with Cynthia Lang. Sometimes she’s on Facebook and my wife will hear something, but I don’t mess around with Facebook. If I did, I’d probably know a lot more about some of these folks, but we don’t keep that much in touch. With Ron, I don’t go around the university too much, and I don’t think he does either. So, we don’t run into each other there. We haven’t kept too much in touch since he retired.


Forrest: You mentioned your daughter Ruth earlier. She’s a really fine player who is now concertmaster of both the Reno Philharmonic and Reno Chamber Orchestra. Did she naturally take to music or did you encourage her toward that path?


John: All my kids did some music. I guess it took most with Ruth and, to a certain extent, Johnny. He also plays in the Philharmonic. With Ruth, my wife Paula would teach violin to her when she was very small. When she was 2 or 3, Ruth would sit in the back of the University Orchestra when I was conducting. Then, she would come home and she would sit down at the piano and she would plunk out a tune. I remember specifically, we were working on the Brahms-Haydn Variations, and she sat down and was playing the theme from the Brahms-Haydn Variations when she was 2 or 3. So, Paula started teaching her very early on. Sometimes it’s hard for mothers to teach their daughters, so when she got a little older, Ruth went to another local violinist who was a friend and played in the orchestras. She made good progress and she played in her junior high school orchestras a bit, and high school. She actually managed to get a contract in the Philharmonic when she was a teenager. I don’t remember how old she was, 13 or something like that. She was good at practicing overall, but there was a time when Paula was having a hard time getting her to practice. So, we discussed it. Ruthie was in love with horses at the time, and we said, “Horses are a big expenditure of time and money and if you want to continue to mess around with horses and that, you have to put in at least a moderate amount of effort on your violin practice everyday.” She said, “OK and phooey,” but she did it. Then, she went away to a summer camp at Rocky Ridge that Roy Malan was involved in when she was a junior or senior in high school. It sort of put a spark in her. I don’t know exactly what did it, but she came back from that summer and started putting a lot more effort into violin. Likewise, when she went to school here, she started taking it a lot more seriously. So, I guess that’s how she developed. 


Forrest: As a parent, you must be proud to have watched her grow into leadership positions in two orchestra that you still play in.


John: Yes. It’s always been fun, even when she was playing second violin. She played second violin mostly to Roy in Telluride, and it’s a certain skill to do that. You need to play your part as proficiently as is possible to play it, but you also don’t want to step on the toes of the first violin player. You have to kind of act as a shadow because you do so many things together, but as the second violinist you are rarely the leader of those things. So, you have to stick like glue to the first violinist. While you want to stay in the shadow, you don’t want to sound like you’re playing second fiddle as it were. She learned to do that, I think, by playing all those years in Telluride with Roy. He’s a terrific musician and has a lot of experience playing with great musicians throughout the world and having great teachers. In a way, he was a great teacher for her even when he wasn’t teaching per se. The same was true with Phillip. When Phillip came here, she played second violin sometimes when we did groups that used more than one violin. So, she naturally has fallen into that chamber music role. When she played here in the chamber music festival in the wintertime and we had a lot of high-powered violinists from far away, they would often put her playing second violin if there were two violin parts. That way, you didn’t have to insult some fancy violinist from back East by giving him the second violin part. The other reason is because she did such a great job of it, they were always thrilled to have her do it. The problem with it was that sometimes she ended up having to play twice as much as anybody else in the festival because she ended up doing all of those things. It has worked out well for her. Because of playing in those groups, she has been asked to play a number of festivals.


Forrest: You say you have a lot of interests. What do you spend most of your time doing now?


John: Well, my wife is a horse nut. So we’ve got three horses. I get to do that with her, and we spend a bit of time doing that. I have a place north of town where I build things. I’ve been building a house there forever, and I work on other building projects. From the time I was in high school, I’ve done a lot of welding and machine work because my dad was interested in some of that stuff. I do a lot of that, at least it seems like a lot sometimes. I’ve got a lot of grandkids now and more on the way. Ruthie has two kids, and my daughter, Holly, has one with another on the way in the next few weeks. My son, Johnny, and his wife just had a baby six months ago. Gil and his wife are expecting twins in a month. It’s like a hatch of grandkids, and I enjoy hanging out with my kids a lot. I enjoy hunting and fishing, so I do that with my brothers. I used to fish with my dad when he was still alive. That was something he loved to do, and he needed someone to take him, so we’d go out to pyramid and fish pretty much every week. I bow hunt, so I do a little bow shooting and that sort of thing.


Forrest: Do you have any upcoming plans with music?


John: Nothing big. I have little projects in the back of my mind, like do some arrangements for a brass quintet that I play with. We still play a fair amount, mostly in the public schools. I would say we play a few times a month at least, and there are little pieces that I think would work well for brass quintet that I feel like I need to arrange. I have arranged some in the past. Interestingly, since I’ve been retired, I just haven’t been able to find time to do that. Other than that, I can’t think of too many things. The orchestras tend to keep you busy even when you’re not rehearsing. Particularly on a horn, it’s like staying in shape for an athletic event. You can’t just start three days before a concert and be in shape for the concert. Sometimes the concerts take a lot of endurance as well as proficiency. You do have to practice at least daily and, as you’re getting close to things, build up your strength.


Forrest: Would you like to add anything about your time with Argenta that I haven’t asked you about?


John: For me, it was something that I enjoyed doing in my career. Chamber music is what most string players love most of all, and for me, Argenta was my regular chamber music outlet.