Reno’s classical music family-tree is the same shape as its garage-rock family tree. Look at a list of the most popular groups and solo projects, and you’ll notice the same musicians’ names repeated all over the place.
Fitting into this trend is Argenta, the resident classical music ensemble at the University of Nevada, Reno, where each member is also a music professor. Horn player and cellist John Lenz, violinist Phillip Ruder and pianist/composer James Winn are all involved with the Reno Philharmonic. Lenz also plays cello with Great Basin Brass and the Telluride Chamber Players. Ruder is concertmaster for both the Philharmonic and the Reno Chamber Orchestra. Winn is planning a residency in Puerto Rico and concerts in New York later this year. Members of the group also play in various combinations with guest artists, students and orchestras. (Sound familiar, garage-rock fans?) And the list goes on.
“We all have to wear a lot of different hats,” says Winn, sporting a mustache and a professorly V-neck sweater, sitting in his office next to two well-broken-in grand pianos. He has an easygoing manner, and he smiles as he talks, even when listing the demands of balancing performing, practicing, teaching and the requisite committee duties that come with the job.
The chamber music the trio plays is as varied as the rest of the group’s interests.
“Our repertoire comes from the last four centuries, as well as the present,” explains Winn. As a composer, whose own compositions are included on the group’s playlist, Winn appreciates new works. But he acknowledges that the best way to whet an audience’s appetite for the new is to combine it with the tried and true.
“We try to find new works or works that haven’t been played very much, but we have to balance that against the fact that most audiences, even an audience that is sophisticated and likes chamber music, likes to see one of those [popular] names,” he says. Sometimes, the group will base a performance around a theme; one concert featured works by a lineage of French composers who’d been students of each other, finishing with the ever-popular Ravel.
At an early-morning rehearsal in an empty Nightingale Hall, the three musicians demonstrate an easy rapport. Dressed to work (Ruder’s in a plaid farmer shirt; Lenz has on industrial boots), they start Johannes Brahms’ Trio in C Minor, Opus 101. They stop to adjust a detail and mark the score with a pencil. When they play, their concentration seems absolute, but when the music stops, they take any opportunity to spill out a quick joke, Ray-and-Tom-style.
Their comradeship is evident in their music. The notes from each instrument combine into one assertive, collective whole then unravel back into distinct, individual sounds. Ruder’s violin goes high and sad, then warm and danceable. Winn’s piano alternately booms and whispers; at times, his melodies do double duty as percussive pacing. Lenz’s cello fades to suspenseful softness, rises to an inviting, guitar-like tone and then escalates to a marchable rouse.
They make it look easy.
But that’s just a lovely illusion built of constant hard work. After rehearsal, they’re back to classes, committees and preparing for more performances.