Middlebury

François Clemmons Sings A Joyous Farewell

April 26, 2013

Longtime Artist in Residence Gives May 10 Concert Before Retiring at the End of the School Year

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Middlebury, VT—Beloved Middlebury College tenor François Clemmons will give a farewell performance filled with songs, stories, and surprises on Friday, May 10 at Middlebury College’s Mahaney Center for the Arts. The program will include a selection of American Negro Spirituals, popular showtunes, and other musical treats, interspersed with personal anecdotes and audience participation. Clemmons, who has performed and taught at Middlebury since 1997, plans to retire at the end of the school year.

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Clemmons has added color and soul to the Middlebury College scene for nearly 25 years. As Alexander Twilight Artist in Residence and director of the Martin Luther King Spiritual Choir, he is known by many names: the divo, the maestro, the reverend, doctor-madam-honey-man, sportin’ life, and even black magic. He has played the role of professor, choirmaster, resident vocal soloist, advisor, confidant, and community cheerleader. Yet his purpose is singular: to share hope through song.

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Born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1945, François Scarborough Clemmons first learned of the joy of song from his mother, who sang traditional spirituals as she worked around the house. His musical gift did not go unnoticed in school—he received music lessons and was encouraged to sing solos at school performances. Later François attended Oberlin College, and earned his Masters degree at Carnegie Mellon University. Shortly after graduation, François won a regional audition for the Metropolitan Opera Studio, and earned a place in the company. In seven seasons he played over 70 classical and opera roles, traveling around the world. He has performed his favorite role, Sportin’ Life in the George Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess, over 200 times. His 1973 recording of that role with the Cleveland Symphony earned him a Grammy award.

Hungry for the opportunity to showcase the spirituals he first learned as a child in his mother’s kitchen, Clemmons formed his own musical group, the Harlem Spiritual Ensemble. Comprising six voices, piano, and percussion, the Ensemble performed faithful interpretations of this important historical and cultural art form. In the time of slavery, African-Americans sang these songs as they worked. The music offered a sense of hope: transcendence from the toil of their everyday lives into a realm of spirituality and freedom. The Harlem Spiritual Ensemble honored that tradition by reproducing the passion of these historic songs in a modern context.

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Clemmons visited Middlebury College with the Harlem Spiritual Ensemble several times in the 1980s and 1990s, and was awarded an honorary doctor of arts degree in 1996. He made Middlebury his home in 1997, joining the College as Director of the College Choir. Rather than recruiting only the best singers, he gathered a diverse cross-section of the campus community: American and international students, faculty from the arts and sciences alike, and staff from departments as various as the arts center, dining service, and financial aid. He wanted the music to unite and invigorate the singers in a glorious shared experience. Clemmons unwittingly made himself an impromptu ambassador of campus diversity.

Later, his role evolved: he was appointed Twilight Artist-in-Residence (named after Alexander Twilight, the first African-American to graduate from an American college), and founded the Martin Luther King Spiritual Choir, leading a campus-wide celebration of the civil rights leader’s legacy for 15 years running. He has taught the January-term course “The History of the American Negro Spiritual and Its Influence on Western Civilization,” lectured in history classes, served as an advisor to students, and performed at campus and town events including everything from an annual concert of Irish music for St. Patrick’s Day to singing the national anthem at College athletic events.

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Despite his remarkable achievements as a musician, he is perhaps best known to American audiences as the friendly, singing policeman “Officer Clemmons” on the Emmy- and Peabody-winning children’s television show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. For two decades Clemmons shared an on-screen friendship with Fred Rogers that modeled mutual respect and love for a generation of eager-eyed toddlers.

François Clemmons will perform on Friday, May 10, 2013, at 8:00 P.M., in the Concert Hall of the Mahaney Center for the Arts, on the campus of Middlebury College. The Mahaney Center for the Arts is located at 72 Porter Field Road in Middlebury, just off Route 30 south. Free parking is available. Admission is free. For more information, call (802) 443-MIDD (6433) or go to http://go.middlebury.edu/arts.

 

Photo credits:
top left and 4th from top: Vincent A. Jones '12
top: Liza Sacheli Lloyd
2nd from top: Bob Handelman
3rd from top: photographer unknown
bottom: Terry Clark