Remembering Marc Johnson

A Tribute to Marc Johnson

Earlier this month, the music world lost one of its most valuable performers and teachers. Marc Johnson (1947-2014), best known as cellist of the internationally renown Vermeer Quartet, passed away on Tuesday, April 8th at his home in Cushing, Maine. Over his long career, Marc distinguished himself as an accomplished performer, a sensitive collaborator, and a dedicated teacher. He served on the faculty of Northern Illinois University for over thirty years, where he influenced the musical and private of lives of many successful students. In tribute, Chicago Symphony cellist Daniel Katz shares his memories of his teacher and the lasting impact that Marc had on his life.

Marc Johnson (1947-2014)

Marc Johnson (1947-2014)

Often, the phrase one-in-a-million is used to convey that someone is truly special. Well, with Marc, one-in-a-million doesn’t cut it. Marc was one-in-a-billion. Marc was a combination of so many great qualities. He was unfailingly kind and caring. He was wise and generous. He was exceptionally smart, with a great wit and a wry though never mean spirited sense of humor. He had a way of making people feel valuable and appreciated, especially when it came to his students, to whom he was an incredibly committed and insightful teacher. And of course he was a wonderful cellist, among the most beautifully expressive musicians I have had the privilege to hear.

When I came to study with him, back in 1998, I was in many ways lost as a person and as a cellist. In a very short amount of time with him, I was a renewed person, filled with excitement both for life and for music. It would not be going out on much of a limb to say that he saved me in many ways. He provided such comfort during difficult times, both when I was his student, and in the intervening years. I remember on more than one occasion having the last lesson of the day, and if I was having a hard time, he would stay to talk for two hours or more. Since leaving his studio in 2001, whenever I have struggled with something cellistically, musically, or even personally, I have often asked myself how Marc would play or think about the issue. In fact, I don’t think a day has gone by that I haven’t thought of him since I studied with him, and whenever I think of him I am filled with a great sense of hope and warmth, as well as inspiration.

Marc had a way of approaching music that managed to be both incredibly informed, intelligent, and cultivated, while at the same time being completely natural. Having the opportunity to hear him play weekly in lessons over the course of three years is something I will always treasure. I continue to listen to his recordings with the Vermeer quartet quite regularly, just to be reminded of his wonderful sound and musicianship (and of course to hear some of the greatest quartet recordings that exist).

Daniel Katz in Marc Johnson's studio

Daniel Katz in Marc Johnson’s studio

One of the things that I really admired about Marc as a teacher was that he didn’t play favorites. In his studio, he treated everybody equally, regardless of ability. He never conveyed a sense of superiority; I felt he was modest almost to a fault. He treated his students with nothing other than the respect he would show any other human being, and everything he did as a teacher was about helping his students accomplish as much as they could in a positive way. He knew how to get the best out of his students, and how to gently push them in the right direction in their careers, without ever making them feel pressured to do things that weren’t right for them. I also learned a lot from the way that, in spite of possessing one of the nicest and most accommodating dispositions of anyone I have known, he always stood up for what he felt was right in his interactions with students and colleagues.

The last time I saw and talked to Marc, earlier this year, he jokingly mentioned that his wife, Kathie, often told him that the one word he didn’t know was the word “no.” I think she meant his distaste for saying no to be a failing of his, but, to me, the fact that someone could be so naturally generous and genuine is truly wonderful and rare. To be the kind of person and teacher he was, on top of being the cellist and musician he was—how does one man come to possess so many great qualities? I don’t know the answer to that, but I know that everyone who was lucky enough to know him was blessed. I wish I could repay him somehow for everything he gave to me and everything he has meant to me. He was such a beautiful human being, and such a beautiful cellist. Outside of maybe two or three members of my immediate family, there is no one who has had a bigger influence on my life. I loved him dearly, and it’s so hard to imagine this world without him in it. He will continue to be an important part of my life for as long as I’m around.

About the author

Daniel Katz, a Chicago native, joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2011, having been appointed by Music Director Riccardo Muti. Prior to joining the CSO, Katz was a regular substitute with the CSO and the Cleveland Orchestra, and was also a member of the Grant Park Orchestra.

Katz received a master’s degree from the New England Conservatory, with distinction in performance and academic honors, where he studied with Laurence Lesser, and a bachelor’s degree from Northern Illinois University, where he studied with Marc Johnson. Other teachers have included Paul Katz, Richard Hirschl and Gilda Barston. He is currently pursuing the Doctor of Music degree at Northwestern University, under the guidance of Hans Jensen.

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12 Responses to Remembering Marc Johnson

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