John C. Merrill
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra violinist who advocated better contracts for his fellow musicians
John Cutler Merrill, a retired Baltimore Symphony Orchestra violin player who advocated better contracts for his fellow musicians, died of pancreatic cancer March 31 at Gilchrist Hospice Care. The Roland Park resident was 75.
Born in Rochester, N.Y., he was the son of Dwight Plumer Merrill, a physicist who worked at Polaroid and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and his wife, Elizabeth, a piano player. He was raised in Newton, Mass., and earned a Bachelor of Music degree at Indiana University, where he was a violin student of Josef Gingold. He received a master’s degree at the University of Hawaii.
After playing in the Honolulu Symphony and the Dallas Symphony, Mr. Merrill joined the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 1971 when the ensemble was led by Sergiu Comissiona. He advanced to a position in the first violin section. While playing, he met his future wife, Julia Barker, a violist, They married in 1981.
“It was wonderful to watch them fall in love and get married,” said Jane Marvine, a BSO English horn player. “John loved music. Every night he was thrilled to be playing and was never out of touch with the power of the music we were making together.”
Mr. Merrill became a leader in the orchestra’s union, called the Players’ Committee, and negotiated contacts with management. Over the years he and his group helped to win contractual improvements.
Brian Prechtl, a BSO percussionist and co-chair of the Players’ Committee, said, “John was a pivotal member of the committee and helped to establish the orchestra as a world-class institution.”
“[John] was a devoted member of our orchestra for over 40 years,” said BSO president Peter Kjome. “John’s compassion and spirit of generosity will be greatly missed.”
Family members said his personal favorites were Mozart and Mahler, and he owned and played an 18th-century violin made by Nicolò Gagliano. His teacher found the instrument at a Boston violin shop and recommended he buy it before heading to college.
Laurie Sokoloff, a retired BSO piccolo player, said, “He was reluctant to take on the role on the Players’ Committee negotiations, but he did. It’s a complicated job, and he acknowledged that it was intimidating. But he challenged himself and rose to what it took. He had well-formed opinions, but he never disagreed with you personally.”
She described him. “If John were undecided on an issue, he’d go and take a walk. Then he would come back and say something perceptive,” she said. “John was a rare person. He made you feel good, he made you feel clean. He was so honest. He had so much integrity.”
Ms. Marvine, his BSO colleague, said, “John was a real mensch. He saw the big picture and was an advocate for the musicians in a constructive and holistic way.”
In recognition of Mr. Merrill’s work with the BSO Players’ Committee, the Maryland Senate, which is considering a funding bill for the orchestra, adjourned Monday night in his honor. The legislation is named for him.
In addition to playing first violin for 42 years in the BSO, Mr. Merrill taught at the Baltimore School for the Arts.
Mr. Merrill was a string music consultant to the Baltimore County Public Schools and created an instrumental music program at the Friends School. He also taught at the Essex campus of the Community College of Baltimore County, Peabody Prep and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He also had private students.
“John was a consummate teacher,” said Judy Pittenger, a Baltimore resident whose children studied with him. “”He was exceptionally gifted at sharing his experience. He was patient and caring and helped his students learn self-discipline and character values.”
“My dad brought a quiet, humble sense of joy and kindness to everyone he met and everything he did,” said his son, John David Merrill of Baltimore. “He devoted himself to his family, to his music, to the orchestra, to his students. “He was a close follower of the news and current affairs. He cared deeply for the world. In his final days when asked what gave him the strength to keep fighting his cancer, he said, ‘Love makes all things bearable.’ ”
Mr. Merrill lived on St. John’s Road and was a popular figure in his neighborhood.
“The real gift John had was for friendship,” said a neighbor, Maidie Podles. “There was never a better friend. He could meet you on any plane — intellectual or musical. I recall the day I looked at a house here — it was a little above our budget — but John and Julia and two friends were playing in a string quartet on their porch and I knew this is where I wanted to be. Our families are now in their third generation of friendships.”
A Quaker, he was an active member of Stony Run Friends Meeting and was its finance committee clerk.
After retiring from the BSO in 2013, he devoted himself to sailing. He enjoyed cruising the Chesapeake and playing his violin and reading the news on the open water, his son said.
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. May 18 at the Stony Run Friends Meeting, 5112 N. Charles Street.
In addition to his son and wife of 38 years, survivors include a daughter, Ada M. Terrill of Baltimore, and three grandchildren.
John C. Merrill was a Quaker and an active member of Stony Run Friends Meeting.