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Vermeer Quartet
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Vermeer Quartet calls it a career

by Mark McGowan

For nearly 40 years, and through 11 members, three things have remained constant in the world of NIU’s Vermeer Quartet.

One is Shmuel Ashkenasi, who has played first violin since the start and will continue to fill that role at 8 p.m. tonight during the group’s final NIU concert.

The second, of course, is a passion about, and commitment to, chamber music.

The third, oddly, is a question: Where did that name come from? It’s a simple answer – Johannes Vermeer was a Dutch painter known for works such as “Girl with a Pearl Earring” – but one that has provided the quartet with plenty of good stories.

  • Subsequent string quartets have chosen artists’ names, as the Vermeer’s original members did, rather than choosing the more traditional names of composers or cities.
  • One NIU group spoofed the Vermeer with its name “Earl Scheib,” founder of the auto painting and body repair company famous for its slogan “I’ll paint any car, any color, for $99. No ups! No overs!”
  • The Pella, Iowa-based Vermeer Manufacturing Co., which makes agricultural, construction, environmental and industrial equipment, brought the quartet to the 160-seat Pella Opera House for a concert.

But after four decades of circling the globe and playing an average of 70 concerts per year, cellist Marc Johnson believes “it’s probably the right time” for the final bows.

And after the last note fades into the upper reaches of the Boutell Memorial Concert Hall, the quartet’s legacy will influence and impact NIU for many years to come.

“The contribution of the Vermeer Quartet to the School of Music, Northern Illinois University and the chamber music world is truly significant, through former students and graduate string quartets who continue the lineage of great artistry and teaching,” says Paul Bauer, director of the NIU School of Music.

“The Vermeer has attracted some of the most talented students in the world, enriching the learning and musical experience for all NIU music students and audiences. Through the decades, the quartet’s dedication to their students endures unmatched by many faculty in similar positions elsewhere, and their presence at NIU is the envy of many other institutions.”

“The Vermeer Quartet is one of the finest string quartets in the world,” adds Harold Kafer, dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts. “They have also demonstrated the highest dedication as teachers of their students. That combination of artistry and commitment has made their contributions quite precious to us.”

Retirement planning became reality a few years ago.

Johnson and his wife are eager to move to Maine, where they own a second home, and where the cellist now has a job waiting at Boston University.

“We wanted to quit while we’re still playing well, and we’re still playing well,” says Johnson, who joined the quartet in 1973. “We’ve seen older colleagues who’ve overstayed their welcome on stage.”

Violist Richard Young, a 1985 addition, agrees that the Vermeer is a group in its prime: Mathias Tacke, the newest member, has logged 17 years on second violin, and the four are still exploring their musical identity, and the sounds and colors of their repertoire, in rehearsals and on stage.

“Our artistic aim should be to do whatever we can to reflect what was in the composer’s mind and heart,” Young says. “We dig a little deeper into the music we all adore so much. Our performances are more than the sum of the individual parts.”

Johnson and Young both point to the quartet’s diverse roots for proof. When musicians come from the same teachers, Young says, and hold similar ideas on concepts, colors, pacing and technical execution, “there’s not much music-making benefit in that.”

The cellist hails from Nebraska and the violist grew up in New York City. Violinists Ashkenasi and Tacke are from Israel and Germany respectively. Other than one string teacher Johnson and Young shared – Polish violinist Josef Gingold – there is little in common.

But they come together with a specific purpose, what Johnson calls “the best music.”

“Our relationship is built around things easy to see,” he says. “We know why we’re married. We know why we’re going to work.”

And they worked well.

The Vermeer has performed at virtually all of the most prestigious festivals since forming at Marlboro in 1969: Tanglewood, Aldeburgh, Norfolk, Aspen, Mostly Mozart, Lucerne, Flanders, Bath, South Bank, Schleswig-Holstein, Orlando, Albuquerque, Stresa, Berlin, Ravinia, Spoleto, Santa Fe, Edinburgh, Great Woods and the Casals Festival.

“In a short time, they were compared to the finest string quartets in the world,” Bauer says, “and three recent Grammy nominations signify they remain in the upper echelon of chamber music ensembles.”

Quartet members are Fellows of the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, England, where they have presented annual master classes since 1978. In recent years, the College of Visual and Performing Arts has presented the quartet’s series in Chicago on behalf of the university.

Their numerous recordings include the entire Beethoven cycle along with works by Schubert, Dvorak, Mendelssohn, Verdi, Brahms, Haydn and Tchaikovsky.

In 2000, the quartet was named Outstanding Studio Teachers by the Illinois chapter of the American String Teachers Association, based on their commitment to fine teaching, high standards of musicianship and community involvement.

In 2003, the quartet celebrated a Grammy nomination and later stirred justices of the U.S. Supreme Court with a command performance in the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. Another Grammy nomination came in 2006.

The quartet is probably best known, however, for Haydn’s “The Seven Last Words of Christ.” A 1995 recording fetched a Grammy nomination. Young even authored a book about the piece the Vermeer has played dozens of times across the world. “We just adore the music,” Young says.

Of course, the quartet leaves another legacy.

Countless students studied string under their individual tutelage, and several quartets served residencies here. One, the Avalon String Quartet, has become the successor. Others are artists-in-residence at the University of Illinois, Harvard University, Rice University and the University of Richmond.

“It’s a source of real pride to be part of developing a quartet that can come in and take over our studios,” Johnson says. “Everywhere we go, we run into former students … we’ve got people all over the world.”

“Our students always came first, and we’ll do anything for them. We fight for our kids, and have always done that,” Young adds. “Paul Bauer, Tim Blickhan and Harold Kafer appreciate that these kids are worth fighting for.”