Professor of music and highly acclaimed cellist Marc Johnson of the Boston University School of Music in the College of Fine Arts passed away from a heart attack Tuesday at his home in Maine.
Johnson, 67, who was a member of several renowned orchestras and ensembles including the three-time Grammy-nominated Vermeer Quartet, had an enormous impact on students and faculty at BU and the performing arts community as a whole.
“He was a dream of a colleague, an ideal sort of colleague. We’re all saddened, but he had such a positive spirit,” said School of Music string department chair Michelle LaCourse. “Those of us who have the good fortune to have spent time with him know that we’re better musicians and better people for having known him. We colleagues and his students will try to pass that on when we can.”
After becoming the youngest member of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra at 18, Johnson went on to perform with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and the Vermeer Quartet for 35 years before joining the School of Music as an adjunct professor in 2007.
“One sensed more the communication and the beauty of what he was playing and didn’t notice the difficulty or the challenges of the pieces,” LaCourse said. “There’s always hard work that we all have to do to prepare and perform a piece, but his concerts tended to transcend that. You could really hear and feel his joy in making music.”
School of Music Interim Director Richard Cornell said the Vermeer Quartet was at the top of their field when they disbanded in 2007.
“Part of what we’re feeling right now is it was just definitely too soon,” Cornell said. “In music, for string players, they generally have very long and illustrious careers and they have a lot to give. To lose someone at this age is like losing somebody who is in the apex of their career. This is someone with a deep knowledge because of all the experience he had, and also a masterful way of transmitting that knowledge.”
At BU, Johnson taught many cello students, coached chamber groups, performed as soloist with the BU Symphony Orchestra and evaluated and advised countless students, Cornell said.
“He was just such a great guy because he would always find the positive,” Cornell said. “His teaching style wasn’t hypercritical, it was hyper-supportive. He decided that the best progress could sometimes be made by reinforcing what people were doing right and making corrections fairly gently.”
Johnson is survived by his daughters Kirsten and Nicole, both professional musicians, his mother Ruth and his younger brother Chris. Though the family is not planning a funeral, there will be a memorial service in Johnson’s honor, and they are encouraging individuals to contribute to a scholarship they will be establishing at BU in his name, they said.
“We’re absolutely delighted that they’ve made this decision [to establish the scholarship],” Cornell said. “The art of music depends on so many things, and one of the things is the way it’s transmitted from one generation to the next. For Kirsten and Nicole, they’re carrying on his legacy through their professional lives. I think this is so important to them, that that legacy from their father continues to be part of music education, the education of a new generation.”
Cornell said BU is planning to hold a memorial event in the fall, which will include performances by faculty, colleagues and students in Johnson’s memory.
“It’s shocking and sad and a great loss, and they all need to go through the grieving process, but everyone knows that our next job is to pass on ways that we’ve benefitted from his presence,” LaCourse said. “His cello students are figuring out that no matter how long it takes to process their grief, they’re going to pick up their cellos when it feels right and practice and honor the teaching that they’ve had from him.”