Welcome to The Northern Almanac, a WNIJ living history project coinciding with NIU's 125th anniversary.
NIU’s music program was slow to take off in the 1940s and 50s. Most students were not from homes or schools where music was a priority, and few scholarships were available to attract gifted musicians.
In the 1960s, the university stepped up efforts to attract more accomplished music faculty and gifted students. In 1969, NIU pursued another route toward musical prestige: creating a resident faculty ensemble.
NIU Department of Music chair Stan Ballinger reached out to young Israeli violinist, Shmuel Ashkenasi, offering the opportunity to create his own string quartet, with complete control over hiring the other members. After Ashkenasi formed his group, someone suggested they be named after a painter. Someone else suggested Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. The Vermeer Quartet was born.
Ashkenasi turned the quartet into one of the worlds finest and most recognized ensembles. They performed in almost every major city in North and South America, Europe, the Far East and Australia. They received three Grammy nominations for their recorded performances of the six Bartok quartets, the Shostakovich and Schnittke quintets, and Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ.
The quartet saw several changes in musicians over time, but for the longest period of its existence, the other parts were played by Mathias Tacke on second violin, Richard Young on viola, and Marc Johnson on cello. Previous members included Pierre Menard (second violin); Scott Nikrenz, Nobuko Imai, Jerry Horner and Bernard Zaslab (viola); and Richard Sher (cello).
Ashkenasi lead the ensemble for its entire 38 years, retiring the group in 2007.
The Vermeer’s extensive international outreach helped NIU recruit young musicians from across the globe. Many of today’s most gifted young string ensembles studied under the Vermeer Quartet, including NIU’s current resident faculty ensemble, the Avalon String Quartet.