NIU remembers Vermeer Quartet cellist Marc Johnson

Marc Johnson
Marc Johnson

Marc Johnson, cellist of NIU’s world renowned Vermeer String Quartet, died April 8 in Cushing, Maine. He was 67.

Johnson performed with the Vermeer from 1973 to 2007, when the four musicians ended their professional time together after four decades of circling the globe and playing an average of 70 concerts each year.

“It’s probably the right time,” Johnson said in early May of 2007, days before the final concert. “We wanted to quit while we’re still playing well, and we’re still playing well. We’ve seen older colleagues who’ve overstayed their welcome on stage.”

Johnson and his wife, Kathie, moved to Maine, where they owned a second home and he had a job waiting at Boston University.

Sadly, Kathie died Feb. 4, 2011. Seven months later, the Vermeer Quartet temporarily came out of retirement to perform at a memorial service to celebrate her life.

Born in Lincoln, Neb., Johnson studied cello at the Eastman School of Music and Indiana University.

He began his professional career while still a student: At the age of 18, he became the youngest member of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, and played in that orchestra for four seasons. He has performed with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

With the Vermeer, he performed at nearly all of the major music festivals and venues in the world. For more than 30 years, the Vermeer was quartet-in-residence at the Bay Chamber Concerts Summer Music Festival in Rockport, Maine.

The Vermeer Quartet
The Vermeer Quartet

The quartet received three Grammy nominations, the last for a recording of the six Bartók quartets in 2005.

In 2003, they performed at the U.S. Supreme Court with eight of the nine justices in attendance. Justice David Souter approached Johnson immediately following the concert. “How long is that Beethoven quartet you just played?” Souter asked.

“About 25 minutes,” Johnson answered.

“That’s got to be the most enjoyable 25 minutes I’ve ever spent at the Supreme Court,” Souter responded.

During all their years of touring, Johnson and his three colleagues also taught in the NIU School of Music. Countless students studied string under their individual tutelage, and several quartets served residencies here, including their successors: the Avalon String Quartet.

Johnson was preceded in death by his wife, Kathie, after 40 years of marriage. He is survived by two daughters, Nicole Johnson of New York City, and Kirsten Johnson Shah of Philadelphia; one grandson, Sebastian Colin Shah; his mother, Ruth, and his younger brother, Chris.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to Boston University in honor of Marc Johnson.

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