Ronald Vernon leaves symphony orchestra after 42 years

Posted on Apr 27 2015 - 8:38am by Clara Turnage
Mississippi Orchestra Conductor Ronald Vernon speaks about a piece before the orchestra's performance at the  Ford Center in Oxford, Miss., Monday, Oct. 20, 2014.

Mississippi Orchestra Conductor Ronald Vernon speaks about a piece before the orchestra’s performance at the
Ford Center in Oxford, Miss., Monday, Oct. 20, 2014.

His baton rises and falls with a fast, angry rhythm.

He stands before students, faculty and community members holding an assortment of instruments and somehow pinpoints every deficiency, every misstep. For 42 years he stood before them, and tonight it’s time to go.

Ronald Vernon will conduct his last concert with the Lafayette Oxford University Orchestra tonight at 7:30 tonight in the Ford Center.

Vernon came to The University of Mississippi in 1972 as an assistant professor of music and conductor for the Lafayette/Oxford/University Symphony Orchestra. At the time, the music department was small; the professors were stretched across various subjects and the fledgling orchestra had to be heavily supplemented by musicians in Memphis. Now, Vernon meets twice weekly with a group of over 60 students, residents and faculty to practice. Vernon taught percussion for the first 15 years of his career and said he taught string class, beginning conducting, some specialized music coverage and “a little bit of everything.”

In 1986, Vernon became the chair of the music department. During his decade in the position, the music department faculty doubled in size and the positions became far more specialized. Vernon said this development in the department allowed him to watch students grow from freshmen to seniors and experience the progress each made.

“One of the things that is true in my experience is that I often teach students every semester from their first semester of their freshman year until they graduate,” Vernon said. “I work with a smaller student population than say, a history teacher, but I work in a close, multi-dimensional way, and I’m really more concerned with long-term development of those students as well as the semester-by-semester teaching experience.”

This has resulted in a never-ending flow of music coming from faculty studio 139 for the majority of his time at the university.

After his time as the music chair, Vernon moved to the College of Liberal Arts, where he spent 13 years as the associate dean. Throughout his time across different areas, Vernon said he always maintained one constant.

“I always at least conducted the orchestra,” Vernon said. “That’s really who I am. I’m first of all a musician.”

During his time at Ole Miss, Vernon said he witnessed many changes on campus.

“Of course, we have to think about the long tenure of Chancellor Robert Khayat and a period of incredible prosperity,” Vernon said. “That’s really allowed the institution to develop in so many ways.”

The end of this semester marks Vernon’s last with The University of Mississippi and as conductor of the Lafayette Oxford University Symphony Orchestra.

“I would hope that the orchestra continues to grow and develop,” Vernon said. “It was at a very undeveloped stage when I came here. I think this has been a very rewarding place to teach and to work.”

Though Vernon said he will miss the orchestra, he is excited to take on some “long-postponed projects,” which he said included some publication and more extensive study of 16th and 17th century music.

“If you live long enough, you’re going to go through some of those changes. I’ve had relatively few changes in my career,” Vernon said.

Though he is making some changes, one thing will stay the same: Vernon will continue to live in Oxford.

“When you live in a place for this period of time, your connections become very complex. So, it’s become home for me,” Vernon said of Oxford.

Vernon is not leaving his conductor’s baton behind with his position as he looks forward to furthering his work with the Germantown Symphony Orchestra in Memphis. Vernon said he is glad to have seen the growth and  experience the development of a young orchestra, and to leave behind a developing music department.

“It’s really been gratifying to see the changes that have been made both in the music department and the university as a whole during those 42 years,” Vernon said. “The university is what— 165 years old now? So, 42 years is a pretty good segment of that institutional history. That was exciting—to be a part of it for that period of time.”

Clara Turnage