As temperatures soared into the 90s on the evening of July 12, four musicians with ties to the University came together to emulate how physicists imagined the forces of the universe to come together. The String Theory Quartet, performing as a part of Artown, Reno’s monthlong celebration of the arts, consists of two alumni who are also siblings, a former alumna-turned-professor and a current instructor.
The quartet’s cellist is Johnny Lenz. Johnny’s father is John Lenz, a renowned former music professor who played cello and horn and played in the University’s Argenta Trio. As the show started, Johnny fiddled with the tuning of his cello. The quartet had tuned their instruments and rehearsed indoors. He figured the heat might impact the instruments, but the same heat had the quartet retreating to the air conditioned indoors before the concert.
“Every single material on Earth has a rate of thermal expansion and contraction, including our strings. As they get longer, the tension decreases in the strings, and they go flat. In the case of my cello, it goes way flat,” Lenz said. During his time at the University, he studied the resonance of fine wires. “I was pretty good at music, but I was also really good at science and physics.”
The former physics student inspired one of the violinists to name the quartet “String Theory” a reference to the theory of how the forces in the universe impact everything in it. Johnny Lenz was a Westfall Scholar when he graduated in Fall 2006, meaning he had the top GPA of all the physics students that semester. He’s been a musician for 33 years.
“The idea behind string theory, and it’s been a long time since I’ve gone to school here,” Johnny said, gesturing around, “but it’s unification. You’re trying to unify the different quantum mechanics, classical mechanics, relativity, you’re trying to unify all that so that it makes sense. And that’s one of the reasons we thought it’d be good for a quartet, is we’re trying to unify and blend the different forces of the musical family and the string instrument family.” Ironically, Johnny has always been a string theory skeptic, though his studies focused on experimental physics rather than theoretical.
There aren’t many jobs in experimental physics in Reno, but Johnny didn’t want to leave the area, so he got a job with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office in law enforcement. The sergeant was shot while on duty in December 2020. In honor of Johnny’s recovery and return to the stage, the Reno Philharmonic Orchestra offered free virtual access to first responders for a virtual concert in February of 2021 and brought 30 of Johnny’s friends, colleagues and family members to the Pioneer Center for an in-person concert.
Johnny’s sister, Ruth Lenz, is the concertmaster of the Reno Philharmonic and the Reno Chamber Orchestra and is also a member of the Classical Tahoe Orchestra. Ruth plays the violin and has a doctorate in music performance. She attended the University to get her degree in music. Jessica Escobar, another violinist, taught anthropology and French at the University and is an alum. Escobar came up with the name for the quartet. Dustin Budish, the group’s viola player, teaches viola at the University. The group played a diverse mix of music, from the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It, Black” to “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” from the Disney movie Encanto to “Promentory,” the Scottish-inspired main theme from the movie “The Last of the Mohicans.”
“It was really fun, and it was good to be here,” Johnny said. Despite the thermal expansion impacting the strings of his cello, the performance received a standing ovation at the end. The event, sponsored by the University and the Edna B. and Bruno Benna Foundation, was the second in a series of free public Artown events called Artown on the Quad.