In the Pit
John Walz, Principal Cellist, LA Opera Orchestra
By Diane Eisenman
Born and raised in Pasadena, John Walz felt he was always wired for music, attending concerts as a youngster with his music teacher mother. He began cello at 10 in public school, and the next year began studying with Eleonore Schoenfeld and performing in chamber groups. This early training forced him to play and listen at the same time, a skill that has served him well as principal cellist for the LA Opera Orchestra.
John began his professional life when he met Pierre Fournier, the great French cellist, who invited him to study with him in Geneva. During these two years, John was introduced to many legendary players and performed in great halls in Europe, launching his career.
Returning to Los Angeles, he spent ten years with the American Youth Symphony under Mehli Mehta. He also formed the Pacific Trio, now 35 years old, and taught at Idyllwild Music Academy, a music program he first attended as a student when he was eleven.
During his late twenties, John also studied voice and sang in several operas. His first was as Masetto in Don Giovanni, still his favorite. “My love for opera began early, seeing Roberta Peters as Queen of the Night at the Old Met when I was eight.” After being on stage, John is very sensitive to opera staging as well as music. He also perfected his cello vibrato while listening to singers.
He served as principal cellist in the Pacific Symphony, the Glendale Symphony, and spent 20 years with the Long Beach Symphony. Joining the LA Opera Orchestra when it formed in 1992, he has observed the quality of the ensemble improve over the years, reaching a pinnacle now, driven by Maestros James Conlon and Plácido Domingo. “It’s a dream job because of such artistic excellence.”
Besides his part-time job with LAO, John is currently working on the new Star Wars film, traveling and recording with the Pacific Trio, teaching privately at home, and commuting weekly to Idyllwild. At LAO he chairs the orchestra Auditions and Renewal Committee, organizing auditions whenever needed. For leisure, he plays tennis, and raises his four rescue dogs together with Vince, his husband of 30 years.
“I love the sound of the cello. It is the closest to the human voice. Playing the cello gives me a sense of physical satisfaction as I let the bow sink into the strings. I also enjoy the repertoire, especially the chamber music.” The challenge for a cellist is intonation, which depends on hearing each note before it is played, and producing beautiful vibrato while blending with others.
Playing with an opera orchestra may be the most demanding job a musician can have, both physically and mentally. To put it into perspective, a Mahler Symphony, which is a full symphony concert, is equal to one act of Der Rosenkavalier. As the lead cellist, performance requires especially intense concentration and focus. “I can’t let up, even for a second.” His timing must match the conductor, the singers, and the listeners in the audience. The highlight of his career was playing the Ring Cycle, the “Mt. Everest” of orchestra performance, exclaiming, “I was thrilled to be part of it!”
Photo credit: Brenden-John