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April 2014
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Vermeer Quartet: A Bittersweet Reunion


The Seven Last Words of Christ, Friday at 8:00 pm

From the time they came together at Vermont’s Marlboro Music Festival in 1969, the Vermeer Quartet was among the top string quartets in America. Based in the Chicago area, they not only performed at an extremely high level, but shared their gifts with many students. In 1970, they became affiliated with Northern Illinois University where they trained a number of next generation groups, including the Pacifica and Avalon String Quartets. In 2007, after decades of recording and touring the world, the four members decided to hang it up.

After a couple of years, however (and still performing as soloists and in various chamber groups), the four old friends decided to revive a Holy Week tradition of performing Joseph Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Christ (a work that represents Christ on the cross through a series of quartet movements interspersed with reflections by different speakers). This meant that once a year, the four members: Shmuel Ashkenasi, Mathias Tacke, Richard Young, and Marc Johnson would return to their old haunts, seated face-to-face with instruments in-hand, to breathe new life into Haydn’s score.

Sadly, this year’s reunion is incomplete. A week ago Tuesday, cellist Marc Johnson died of a heart attack at his home in Maine. Johnson had been teaching as adjunct professor at Boston University, and was only a few days away from his annual trek to Chicago.

WFMT’s Suzanne Nance knew Marc Johnson, not from his longtime affiliations in the Chicago area, but from her work in Portland, Maine. Suzanne shared this reflection:

Marc Johnson was a warm and kind man with music in his soul. I rarely saw Marc without his cello. He played for anyone craving the sound of music, and celebrated the global music community. He especially loved playing for the Portland Chamber Music Festival (Maine) each year; and the last time we spoke he said that playing for the Portland-based festival was like “making music with family.” Marc knew everyone’s name as well as their kids’ names. He was curious and concerned about others and their loved ones. He generously shared his time and talent as a performer, and as a teacher with thousands. He worked diligently to champion the arts, and always took time to listen to others and thoughtfully respond. Marc’s sincere way of interacting with and engaging people carried over into his music-making. This is what made him such an extraordinary person and cellist.

On Friday evening at 8:00 pm, WFMT will continue the Holy Week tradition of presenting Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Christ. Among this year’s distinguished collaborators are Rabbi Michael R. Zedek, senior rabbi, Emanuel Congregation; Martin E. Marty, professor emeritus of religious history at the University of Chicago; Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., pastor emeritus of Trinity United Church of Christ; and Donna M. Carroll, president of Dominican University.

This year’s performance of Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Christ features the Vermeer Quartet with guest cellist Kurt Baldwin.


  • Jennifer Elowitch

    Thanks you for this lovely remembrance, Suzanne. I’m heartbroken, but glad to see that Kurt Baldwin will be playing with the Vermeer in this performance. Kurt loved Marc too and studied with the Vermeer — and I think Marc would smile to know that Kurt was sitting in for him. We will be honoring Marc this summer at the Portland Chamber Music Festival — dedicating our August 21st concert to him, with a program featuring Chicago Symphony cellist Brant Taylor in a performance of the Boccherini Sonata in A major.