Ending of an era for music professor, Argenta Trio member

3/5/2009 - By: John Trent

The Church Fine Arts Building is a structure of beginnings and endings, a place where young musicians take the first few tentative steps toward a career in music, and where seasoned artists share their many talents with others.

One only has to look at the Department of Music and Dance’s latest “CALENDAR OF EVENTS” posted in one of Church Fine Art’s bustling hallways to see that there are as many preludes as postludes in the building.

Later this month, for example, there will be numerous musical rites of passage – a host of cello recitals, graduate recitals, trombone graduate recitals that will move students one step closer to achieving their degrees.

There is also an end of an era coming soon.

Listed on the calendar, on Friday, March 6 at 7:30 p.m. in Nightingale Concert Hall, will be a performance given by the University’s Argenta Trio.

For John Lenz, the group’s cellist, it will be the final performance in a remarkable 37-year association with the Argenta Trio and the University of Nevada, Reno. Lenz, 60, a longtime professor of the cello and horn, will be retiring in June.

“I’m in my 37th year teaching at the University,” Lenz recalled recently in his Church Fine Arts office. “I was a student here for four years, and even before that, I played in the orchestra and the brass ensemble and took lessons for probably another six years before that. I started (taking music lessons) before this building was even finished. I can remember taking lessons in the basement of a building that was eventually demolished and replaced by the current humanities building.

“I’ve been in this building, in one form or another, since the day this building opened (in 1960).”

Lenz, honored as a Foundation Professor in 1999 for a career characterized by the highest levels of teaching and performing, said he’s looking forward to Friday’s performance. He will be joined by his Argenta Trio colleagues Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio, violin, and James Winn, piano, for a program titled, “Czech Mates.” The program will feature the works of Hummel and Schulhoff, and will conclude with Dvorak’s “Quintet in A minor” with guest artists Ruth Lenz, violin, and Virginia Blakeman Lenz, viola. Ruth Lenz is John Lenz’s daughter; Virginia Blakeman Lenz is John Lenz’s sister-in-law.

“Generally speaking, if you’re playing with a trio, you rehearse enough that you don’t have to think as much about the piece you are playing,” he said. “But in this case, we’ve had only a couple of weeks to have gotten together with all the different players on the piece, so we’re going to have to think a little bit more about how to play the piece well.

“I expect mostly to be on task that night. And, as far as it being the last program, I’m sure it will be something I will think about, because it’s been a lot of years.”

It will be entirely fitting that he will share the stage with two faculty members he has great admiration for, as well as two family members. For Lenz, friendships, family and music have been in many ways intertwined.

Even at age 60, he can still clearly recall the encouragement he received from his parents regarding a career in music.

His mother, Elizabeth, who is 86 and still rallies the family for once- or twice-monthly parties and still finds time to attend many of her family’s many musical performances, played the piano and is the daughter of a piano teacher. Although Lenz’s father, Gilbert, a well-known and well-respected Reno surgeon who passed away in 2008 at age 89, never played an instrument, he, too, encouraged his son to not only play music but to play it well.

“The most important thing they provided us was encouragement,” Lenz said of the experience provided by his parents to the family of seven Lenz children. “My parents loved music and they wanted us to have that chance to play. We all seemed to have some sort of gift for doing it.”

Lenz has seen many changes in his department and on the University’s campus over the years. He has a unique prism; he enrolled at the University as a freshman in 1966, and has seen University artistic assets such as the Argenta Trio evolve practically from the very beginning.

He recalled in his office, which was filled with four large cello cases, a host of musical notes scribbled on a nearby blackboard and the strong scent of freshly oiled instruments, how in its infancy the Argenta Trio was originally called the Belle Arts Trio. Once Lenz joined in 1972, the trio continued to make a name for itself – until it changed its name when University donor E.L. Weigand donated some much-needed equipment to the music department.

“So the trio was re-named in honor of Mr. Weigand,” Lenz said.

Another name change came about in the mid-1980s when Ron Williams, a University faculty member, pianist for the trio and one of the seminal figures in the region’s music history, happened to be making a long drive through the open spaces of Nevada. He saw an exit for Argenta, Nev.

Williams felt he was onto something.

“Ron was inspired to change our name,” Lenz said, smiling at the memory. “He thought, ‘Well, ‘Argenta’ means ‘silver.’ We live in the Silver State. It’s a nice-sounding name. Why don’t we call ourselves the Argenta Trio?’ He brought it up to the other members. And that’s what we’ve been called ever since.”

Lenz has done just about everything a music professor can do. He has taught cello and horn. He has taught theory, form and analysis, orchestration and conducting. In fact, for many years he served as conductor for the University’s brass ensemble and, as well, the orchestra.

In conversation, it’s obvious that he holds all of his colleagues, both past and present, in high esteem, and loves his time with his students.

He’s proud of where the music department is today, and is quick to praise the work of others.

“In a way, I’ve kind of ridden along with what a lot of other people have done, as well as what I have contributed,” he said.

“For instance, when (violinist and former concertmaster for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra)) Philip Ruder came to the University (in the mid-1990s), part of the terms of his coming here was that he wanted to have the graduate quartet be on the payroll, to basically have some sort of scholarship. Most good music schools have a situation like that, where they pay the fees for a graduate quartet, like graduate assistants.

“Phil got that established through the University Foundation. That, I think, more than anything else, has really given a shot in the arm to our string program and the orchestra program generally. It’s made a huge difference in the orchestra program. Our orchestras are up a notch or two; it’s not that we didn’t have good players in the past, but now we consistently have more quality players to choose from.”

Even though there has been much accomplished, Lenz could probably easily have decided to teach for another three or five years. So why retire now?

“Sometimes I ask myself, ‘Gee, why would I want to retire from this job,” Lenz said, “because it’s the best of all jobs. You get to teach, meet a lot of good students, get to play great music with a lot of other great players, and you get paid for doing it. But … then again, it’s time probably for somebody else to get a chance to have a great job, too.”

Lenz plans to be plenty busy in retirement. His father passed along to him a love of tinkering, of “fixing broken equipment, and bending things,” Lenz said cheerfully. So the odds are good he will be spending quite a bit of time in his shop at home, welding with joyful industriousness, “making things and seeing how they work.” He and wife Paula also plan to travel, and will “take the horses out in the mountains a bit more.” Lenz is also a grandfather, with a second grandchild to arrive in the coming months.

Still, he admits that his life, just as his family, friends and music have often centered on the University campus for many years, will take some re-adjusting. Lenz lives a short distance from campus, and has become accustomed “to walking back and forth from campus two or three times a day … even on weekends … Our campus is just part of the neighborhood to me.”

Just then Lenz paused, and remembered back 47 years, when he first came to campus, to receive his first music lessons in the humanities building, and, not long after, Church Fine Arts – the building he has taught and performed in and called his professional home for the past 37 years.

He pointed to floor of his office. There was a tell-tale sign that a musician had long ago taken up residence in his office: a small hole inadvertently, but clearly, drilled in the floor tile from countless hours of cello practice and playing.

“Forty-seven years ago, I probably started making the holes in the floor with my cello,” Lenz said. “I started making the holes … and I’ve probably had my students widen it over the years with their playing.”


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