The composer, teacher, military man and more

To some, music may not mean much. But to a select, gifted few, a musical score is a fascinating creature capable of dipping into our memories and souls. Robert Ward, an exceptional composer, knew and felt the power of music and made it a lifetime passion.

Before Ward, at the age of 95, passed away last April in his Durham home, the Triad along with thousands of students and faculty, and even soldiers, benefitted from his love for music. Not only was he instrumental in the founding of UNC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, he was its first chancellor in 1967.

He is also responsible for the addition of the Design and Production Department—an area of study he believed should stand on its own, outside of the school of theater. He even went on to teach musical composition at the school after stepping down as chancellor.

But what he is most famous for is his Pulitzer Prize-winning opera, The Crucilble, which premiered in 1961.

Given all that UNC School of the Arts owed to Ward and the fact that some of the faculty had the honor of working with him in 2012 when Piedmont Opera performed his famous work, it only seemed fitting that it be the school’s symphony orchestra— complete with students and faculty—to perform a concert in his honor.

Last Saturday, March 29, the UNC School of the Arts Orchestra Symphony presented a touching tribute to the kind, but no-nonsense teacher and composer. The collection of pieces was well thought out and appropriately created a new learning experience for the audience—something I believe that Ward would have appreciated.

The concert began with Ward’s By the Way of Memories (1987) and continued with a piece by one of his former UNCSA students, composer Kenneth Frazelle, who studied under Ward decades ago. Aaron Copland, one of Ward’s teachers and influences, wrote the third piece in the concert, Letter from Home, in 1944.

This order of the concert gave an interesting perspective, and allowed the audience to note the subtle influences one work had on the other. The final piece, Ward’s Symphony No. 2, an energetic and textured composition, brought the concert full circle, back to the man of honor.

When I chose to review this concert, I believed it would simply give me a great lead into my own memories of Ward when I interviewed him in 2012. But instead, I ended up learning even more.

What I enjoyed most about UNCSA’s tribute was the scattering of stories that were shared about Ward.

I learned from his former student Frazelle that he was a great and patient teacher who went above and beyond to nurture young talent. I also learned more about his time as a bandleader in the 17 th infantry and the day—as he played for a group of downtrodden soldiers—that he truly learned the value and power of music.

As I sat in UNCSA’s concert and gained exciting, new insight into Ward’s past, I felt that same thrill, that same thirst for knowledge I felt during our own conversation in 2012 and I took a moment to remember that interview—one that I will always feel honored to have had.

So, I’d like to reminisce for a bit here and re-print a bit of that conversation, in the hopes that it will satisfy some other’s thirst to know such a great composer.

Ward saw the second-ever performance of the Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible in New York and said he was “bowled over by the power of the play and its characters. “I immediately thought about ‘How do I get to Miller directly?’” Ward said in a 2012 interview with Yes!.

“I learned later that Miller thought at first that [The Crucible] would make a better opera than a play. He even began to hear music from the first scene,” Ward continued.

After gaining Miller’s permission and a commission from the New York City Opera, Ward teamed with librettist Bernard Stambler, who began the process by cutting down the text and length of the play.

Ward said they were under so much pressure to finish the opera in time that the cast had to learn it scene by scene as it was written. Ward finished the last pages of score only 11 days before the curtain went up.

“I was so busy writing it that I didn’t get to really view it, but then when I first heard it in the singers’ voices and saw the staging of it and so forth, I had a feeling that it was going to be a great success,” he said.

“At the end of the opera there was a very quiet pause for just a moment — long enough that the audience heard a woman break out in a great sob,” Ward said about the first performance. “And then the audience reacted and they all got on their feet.”

Ward said he felt silly standing for his own opera, so he remained seated with his wife. “During the applause, an older woman who was sitting next to me looked down at me and she said, ‘Young man, don’t you realize what you’ve just heard?’ I smiled and introduced myself.” !