David Weiss

David Weiss with a musical saw in 1986. He was a world-renowned oboist who spent 30 years with the L.A. Philharmonic, but it was his prowess on the saw that landed him on "The Tonight Show" and "Prairie Home Companion." (May Company News Bureau / May 29, 2014)

David Weiss was a world-renowned oboist who spent 30 years with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

But that's not what got him featured appearances on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson and "Prairie Home Companion." In an unlikely pairing for a classical musician, Weiss also played the musical saw. Using a violin bow across a Stanley Handyman cross-cut saw bought at Sears for $7, he played folk songs, Beatles tunes and Igor Stravinsky pieces.

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FOR THE RECORD:
David Weiss: The obituary of musician David Weiss in the May 30 LATExtra section listed his sons as Jonathan Walker and Benjamin Walker. Their names are Jonathan Weiss and Benjamin Weiss. Walker is the last name of his stepchildren.
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"I shall never forget his wonderful interpretation of the oboe part in Richard Wagner's 'Tristan und Isolde,'" longtime Philharmonic music director Zubin Mehta said this week in a statement, "nor will I forget seeing him play the musical saw on a street corner in Vienna during one of our European tours."

Weiss, 67, died Saturday while surfing off Pacific Palisades, said his wife, Alpha Walker. He collapsed near shore after riding in on a wave; the exact cause of death has not been determined.

In addition to being the principal oboist with the Philharmonic from 1973 to 2003, Weiss taught the instrument at USC and the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara. He was also a highly respected photographer; his pictures of players and conductors have appeared in numerous books and other publications.

It was his love of the saw, however, that set him apart from other orchestra musicians. The instrument, which is bowed and bent to produce an unearthly sound that could accompany science-fiction movies, was popular as a novelty in vaudeville, then largely died out. Weiss first heard it, live, at a party that changed his life in more ways than one.

"He met the saw and me at the same party on New Year's Eve," said Walker of the gathering on the eve of 1981. A guest played "Auld Lang Syne" on the saw, and Weiss was hooked.

The instrument, he said in a 1991 Los Angeles Times interview, "exudes certain sounds that you just can't get on any other instrument." He began practicing vigorously and two years later won second prize at the Festival of the Saws in Santa Cruz.

For fun, Weiss would practice on the Venice boardwalk. "He would carry the saw in a violin case, lay it down, and when he played, people would toss quarters at him," said his mother, Marcia Neukrug Weiss. Someone with a connection to "The Tonight Show" heard him there, and in 1983 Weiss found himself sitting next to Johnny Carson and playing "Danny Boy."

He played the saw at many other venues including the Hollywood Bowl, Lincoln Center and Disneyland. "It's a joy to make music," he said in the Times interview, "on something that is not intended for that purpose."

Weiss was born Feb. 8, 1947, in New York City. His mother was a piano teacher, and by the time he was 3 he was playing the instrument a bit by ear.

His mother, wary of warfare, decided her son should play an instrument that would fit in with a military band. "The idea was that in a band, you don't have to be with a gun, shooting," she said.

The family moved to Los Angeles in 1953, and Weiss showed such affinity for the oboe that at the age of 11 he was accepted into a student music program at USC. At age 15 he won a competition to solo at a Los Angeles Philharmonic concert.

Weiss graduated from University High School and briefly took classes at USC and UCLA before being hired in 1965 to play oboe in the touring Metropolitan Opera National Company. Faced with being drafted during the Vietnam War, he enlisted at the end of the tour. His mother's plan worked — he spent his three-year service stint playing in a military band at West Point.

After his discharge, he won positions with orchestras in Pittsburgh and Washington before joining the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Mehta.

On the side, he played for movie and television soundtracks, and not just on the oboe. For the 2000 Coen brothers film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," Weiss was asked to improvise on the saw for the "Sirens" scene.

"That's the kind of challenge he loved," Walker said. "'Give me something no one else can do.'"

In addition to his wife and mother, Weiss is survived by daughter Jamie Chilton; stepdaughters Carly Walker and Hannah Walker; sons Jonathan Walker and Benjamin Walker; stepson Luke Walker; sister Dawn Weiss; brother Abe Weiss; and eight grandchildren.

david.colker@latimes.com