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Fanning fills Mead Chapel with 50 years of music

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Posted on September 28, 2017 |
By Elsie Lynn Parini



n Emory LEAD 4890.jpg
Professor Emeritus Emory Fanning celebrates 50 years at Middlebury College with a concert of organ music on Oct. 1, 4 p.m., in Mead Chapel. Independent photo / Trent Campbell

Emory Fanning sat down lightly on the seat, stretched his fingers over the keys, and let his feet hover at the ready over the foot pedals. A gentle pull of a stop, flickering of his right fingers and the great hall of Middlebury’s Mead Chapel filled with a traditional organ melody. The sounds grew as he employed his left hand, and then feet, reaching a crescendo that held tones ringing in the 1917 building’s ceiling.

“Can you imagine how much music is up in this ceiling,” Fanning asked, looking up at the wooden ceiling he’s performed under for the past 50 years.

Molta! A lot.

And soon to be more. Fanning will perform a free concert on the Gress-Miles organ at Mead Chapel on Sunday, Oct. 1, at 4 p.m., to celebrate his 50 years at the college. 

“There will be a variety of music,” he said, citing works by Bach, Franck, Ernst, Couperin, Dello Joio and Howells. About half-way through the concert, Fanning will perform with his wife, Diana (an accomplished solo and concert pianist herself, who has been teaching at Middlebury College for the past 35 years). After a short break, Emory Fanning will continue solo with five more pieces.

“I did my best to have balance in the program,” he noted of the hour-long concert. “It’s all going to be interesting and exciting.”

Indeed. The organ has been an instrument that’s held Fanning’s interest since he was a boy. Raised in Wilmington, Del., Fanning started with piano at age six and did pretty well. By high school, he was a proficient pianist and picked up the clarinet. Then one day, a friend invited him to come sing at his church’s choir where there was an organ accompanist.

“That was the first time the organ jarred me,” Fanning, now 82, remembered. He continued his musical training at Oberlin College, where he studied organ and choral conducting.

From Oberlin, Fanning studied at the University of Illinois. There he was proud to be the only chromelodeon player in the Harry Partch Ensemble — chromelodeons are pump organs modified by Partch to conform to his unique tonality system (thanks Wikipedia). Fanning earned his Master’s in Music in 1959, and then, after a few years teaching at Southwestern College in Kansas, he continued on to Boston University for his doctorate.

Fanning received his D.M.A. in 1964 and stayed at BU to teach for another three years. By 1967, Middlebury College had listened to tapes Fanning had sent and brought him north to interview. The rest is history.

Fanning’s tenure at the college has been impressive to say the least. Besides teaching a wide range of courses in music theory, history and performance, Fanning was also conductor of the Middlebury College Choir, which toured the country and appeared nationally in two Public Television Christmas specials in 1984 and 1988.

“Olin Robison was the president at the time and he was very supportive,” Fanning remembered.

The two PBS Christmas specials featured “Lessons and Carols for Advent and Christmas,” which Fanning founded with then Chaplain Charles P. Scott in 1971. But, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Fanning also initiated the Alumni Choir, conducted the Vermont Symphony Orchestra and College Orchestra, led the Community Chorus and College Choir, served as Chairman of the Music Department and Concert Series, performed as a concerto soloist with the VSO, and worked with past-president Robison to replace the old 12-note carillon in the Mead Chapel tower with the present 48-bell instrument that offers weekly recitals in the summer. Oh, and he and Diana owned and directed Point Counterpoint Chamber Music Camp on Lake Dunmore from 1979-1988.

All that in 30 years.

“As a conductor, I think about making each of my gestures as clear as possible to draw out the most beautiful musical sound that I can in space and time,” Fanning explained. “I take and translate music into a life-giving impulse — that’s what I try to do… It’s wonderful to try to impart that, even if it takes waving your arms wildly and making a fool of yourself.”

It worked. At his retirement celebration in 1997 the Middlebury resident conducted an incredible performance of Brahms’ German Requiem with over 200 singers, including more than 100 of his former students who returned especially for the event.

“After all these years, I take away the wonderful ongoing relationships I have with my former students. They’ve become wonderful friends,” Fanning said. “It’s so heartening to hear about former students’ performances and them becoming leaders in their musical life.”

Since his ’97 retirement, Fanning was appointed to the position of College Organist. He has played for all sorts of occasions for nearly 20 years.

“The organ is like an orchestra with different voices,” he said, pulling stops and pressing keys to demonstrate the different sounds: trumpets, oboe, clarinet… “It’s all very mechanical.”

And complex.

When you look at the organ from the front, you can’t see half of what’s going on. There are 2,800 free standing pipes (give or take). Each pipe makes a different sound and corresponds to certain combinations of keys, pedals and stops. Air is pumped into the wind chest from a motor in the basement and then released into the pipes, depending on which keys are depressed, creating its melodious sound.

The Gress-Miles organ in Mead Chapel was installed in 1971 during Jim Armstrong’s presidency at the college, and refurbished in 2006 for $60,000. It’s a well respected instrument and has been played by many accomplished organists including Paul Jacobs, the chair of the Juilliard School’s organ department.

“It’s a really hospitable instrument,” said Fanning, who’s now retired from his role as college organist. “It’s a medium size and can be adapted for all organ literature.”

But simply playing all the right notes on the organ doesn’t make you a good organist.

“It’s not about the sound,” Fanning explained. “It’s about the way the organist can deal with time… An organist is dealing with different problems than a vocalist or instrumentalist; the organ is limited in its dynamic range. So the organist has to be aware of consonants and pauses in the music. Time — t-i-m-e — is so very important in the way the notes are connected or not… You have to figure out how to make the piece stand out, how to articulate it in a different way — it has to pop!”

It’s such insight of this unique musical instrument that earned Fanning the Artist of the Year designation by the New Hampshire-Vermont chapter of the American Guild of Organists in 1995, and the audience can expect plenty of “pop” during the Oct. 1 concert that is bound to be an incredible showcase of Fanning’s 50 years. 

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