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Ron Vernon: a Fellowship of Music

Photo by Nathan Latil

On Monday night at the Ford Center, Dr. Ronald Vernon, Professor of Music Emeritus at the University of Mississippi, will conduct his final concert as director of the Lafayette-Oxford-University Orchestra, capping a career that began in 1972 when he was appointed to the Ole Miss music faculty.

In the beginning the Ole Miss symphony was more ensemble than orchestra, consisting of perhaps five or six faculty members and ten students. Undaunted, Vernon set to work building an orchestra, scraping up money for scholarships and recruiting musicians from around the Mid-South. The symphony’s concert venues were Meek Auditorium and Fulton Chapel. His core performers, dependable and uncomplaining were members of his own family: wife Krista (viola), daughters Jennifer, 14, and Ellen, 8 (violin), and son Jamie, 10 (cello).

Dr. Ronald Vernon

In 1986, when Vernon was chairman of the Music Department, he “discovered” me playing standup at a cocktail party. “How about playing with the symphony?” he said. I sheepishly admitted that I had not bowed the bass since high school. He laughed. “Come on, give it a try!” My musical connection with the University actually began in 1953, when at 12 I took trumpet lessons from Lyle Babcock, Ole Miss band director from 1950 to 1966. He’d been called up in the Army Reserve and was directing the 98th Army Band at Fort Rucker, near Ozark, Alabama, where I grew up. In his un-airconditioned barracks office, sweat beading on my forehead, I learned to play “The Flight of the Bumblebee.” To play a more difficult (for me) stringed instrument in the Ole Miss symphony was both a challenge and a connection to the past. Fate was knocking on my door.

Vernon threw me into the fire. A month later I played in a Christmas cantata with the symphony at the First Presbyterian Church. Squeezed between the choir loft and communion railing, we accompanied the church choir performing Vivaldi’s “Gloria.” I actually was positioned outside the railing in front of the first pew, where my wife Dean and her mother Louise Meadow were sitting. Dean had been a captive audience ever since I played in the Grove during Dixie Week. At the Holiday Inn bar I used to play with guitarist (and later bandmaster at Paris, Tennessee, High School) Martin Pascal, while she passed the hat.

Having listened patiently to my practicing the bass part, Dean attended a symphony dress rehearsal curious as to how the melody sounded. From then on she could be seen in the cavernous Ford Center, an audience of one in the center of the orchestra section, as Dr. Vernon took us through rehearsal, repeating difficult passages, polishing the rough spots, getting the performance concert-ready. Once, Dean talked him into putting her favorite symphony—Dvorak’s “New World” —on the program. The first time we rehearsed it, start to finish without stopping, she gave us a standing ovation, tears in her eyes, solitary hand claps echoing throughout the empty theatre. Vernon called over his shoulder, “How do we sound, Dean?” Her heartfelt reply made him smile: “Just fine!

From right, bass players Greg Johnson and Larry Wells Photo courtesy Robert Jordan.
From right, bass players Greg Johnson and Larry Wells
Photo courtesy Robert Jordan.

The Ole Miss Music Department has been blessed with great teachers and performers, many recruited by Dr. Vernon. At the 2013 pop concert at the Ford Center featuring Kallen Esperian, he assembled an orchestra comprised mostly of music faculty members. Hoping to keep up with these seasoned professionals I volunteered to play. We had a single practice session before the dress. Vernon casually mentioned we’d be sight-reading all 26 numbers straight through, then raised his baton and off we went at full tempo. For the staff members it was business as usual. For me it was like taking off in a Lear jet.

Here’s Vernon’s secret—for him conducting is not work but play. I think he enjoys rehearsals as much as the concerts, perhaps more so. He makes practice fun by pausing now and then to toss out explanations about the composer’s characteristic phrasing, quirks and eccentricities. We could be sitting in a Salzburg cafe chewing the fat about Mozart.

To blend with an orchestra one plays to the music he hears around him. Vernon teaches his players to listen to each other, to play not as individuals but partners, and likewise has trained LOU audiences how better to appreciate the history behind a given selection, its rhythms and drama, what the composer is saying through his music. Creating a bond between performers and audience, a fellowship of music, if you will, is one of Vernon’s crowning achievements. He has spent his career developing the performing arts at the University of Mississippi, and the LOU audience and student-orchestra are the beneficiaries of his vision and commitment. College conductors are typically admired and respected by their students and colleagues, but I’m sure I speak for the Ole Miss symphony when I say that Vernon stands alone as teacher and mentor and that he will be sorely missed. He may continue to direct the Germantown Symphony Orchestra and perform in the Mockingbird Ensemble in Oxford, but the Ole Miss symphony will never be the same without him. This coming Monday night at 7:30 we will celebrate the close of a distinguished career, and for Ron Vernon’s players—students, faculty, and one or two townies, including yours truly—this will be an occasion both joyous and sad.

Sue Gaston, cellist, instructor of cello and string bass

cello4-1When I think of the LOU Symphony, I think of Ron Vernon. He has been a part of the LOU Symphony longer than I have lived in Oxford, (roughly 25 years). It’s hard to imagine the Orchestra without him. I will always remember his kind, nurturing approach with the students; the way he treats them as family. Over the years he has worked hard to improve the quality of the Orchestra and to consistently push the students to achieve their potential. As a colleague I have found Ron to be unfailingly supportive of me and always willing to consider my opinion. I would like to offer my congratulations to Ron as he retires from Ole Miss!

Yan Mao, violinist, and viola instructor

_dsc4016_副本I received my Master’s degree from Ole Miss in 2009 and returned in 2013 to teach in the music department. Ole Miss has always had a special place in my heart even during the time I was away. One of the main reasons why the university had such an effect on me was my involvement with Dr. Vernon and the L-O-U orchestra, which allowed me the opportunity both to perform and to grow as a musician. As an educator and conductor, Dr. Vernon cares about the development of the orchestra and of each member. His vast musical knowledge, integrity, openness and professionalism have been a great influence on me, and it has been an honor to work with him.

Jennifer Vernon van Nelson, daughter of Ronald and Krista Vernon

jennie2As Dad retires from the university symphony, I can hardly believe this time is almost over.  Truly, it has been an ever-present entity in our lives. My parents moved to Oxford literally months before I was born, and as an infant, I slept on a pallet in the pit at Meek Hall while they practiced. We all played in the orchestra and helped Dad mark parts. So much of his time was taken with preparing: listening to recordings, studying scores, preparing parts, erasing pencil marks at the end, inventorying them in his music library, etc. It has been almost 20 years since I played with the orchestra, and I was surprised at how emotional I became when I heard from Susan that this would be his last time with the Ole Miss orchestra. It has meant so much to our family and been such a part of who he is that it is hard to imagine he will be handing it off to someone else.

Greg Johnson, Blues Archivist and Associate Professor

greg_bass2 (2)-1When I moved to Oxford in 2002 to take the job of Blues Curator at UM, I didn’t know if I would have an opportunity to play symphonic music. I was thrilled to find out that the university orchestra included community members and needed bassists. I’m consistently impressed with the caliber of programming Dr. Ron Vernon brings to the orchestra. There have been several compositions I thought we’d never be able to pull off, but we did—and we did so spectacularly well! This is a testament to his gift at seeing our potential and getting us to meet and even exceed what we thought was possible. I’m thankful to Ron Vernon for giving me the opportunity to play symphonic music here in Oxford and for bringing such good music to the broader community.

Ellen Shelton, Director of Pre-College Programs and UM Writing Project

IMG_0365-1When I was looking for graduate English programs in 1991, I wanted to find a school with an orchestra. I’ve been playing with orchestras since 6th grade, so rehearsal halls always feel a bit like home. I sent an audition tape to Dr. Vernon and soon after received a call offering a small scholarship and a seat in the cello section. That discussion led to a relationship that has lasted almost a quarter of a century of having Ron Vernon as orchestra conductor and friend. Ron and Krista became that favorite aunt and uncle who pushed you to be the best at your studies, who offered ice cream or a space to crash when the semester got tough. Stopping at the Vernon house means being surrounded by music in some form: practicing, listening, or discussing. As students, we loved working with Ron because he breathes music. He is devoted to teaching music to students. The excitement on his face when we performed a piece well was our reward as musicians. Even now, he welcomes all players to the orchestra, even those of us who don’t play professionally. I know I speak for Jon Moen, Greg Johnson, Larry Wells, and a few others when I say we are grateful for being included in this orchestra. The LOU orchestra allows us to give back to the community by doing something we love—making music under an amazing conductor, Ron Vernon.

Lawrence Wells is the author of the WWII novel Rommel and the Rebel. Wells has written three novels and edited six non-fiction books including William Faulkner: The Cofield Collection. With his wife Dean Faulkner Wells, he operated Yoknapatawpha Press, an independent press in Oxford, Mississippi, and co-published a quarterly journal, The Faulkner Newsletter. Co-founder of the Faux Faulkner Contest, he also scripted an Emmy-winning PBS regional documentary, “Return to the River.” He has been a frequent contributor to American Way and Southwest Spirit magazines and The New York Times Syndicate.

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