Composer's lifetime award strikes grand note

Robert Ward, the grand old man of American opera and arguably the last great composer of his generation, doesn't get out of town much anymore.

He's in remarkable shape for someone about to turn 94, with his faculties largely intact, and he speaks in a clear voice. Still, traveling is difficult, and Ward needs a walker to get around. But he'll journey to Washington, D.C., to receive a singular honor: a lifetime award from the National Endowment for the Arts' Opera Honors, which comes with a $25,000 honorarium.

"Winning that was a complete surprise - particularly the last sentence of the letter and the amount of money," Ward said with a laugh. "I couldn't believe it. I've had a lot of commissions come my way, and I think that had something to do with the fact that I never tried to shock the world but just do as well as I could. That seems to have worked out."

One of Ward's many gifts is a flair for understatement. In fact, he's a giant of 20th-century music.

"These NEA awards frequently honor those who have achieved a great deal, or those who have been active in passing along their expertise," said Marc Scorca, president of Opera America in Washington. "Bob has done both. He's a key player whose works have been a pillar of American opera companies seeking to promote an American voice, which is a huge accomplishment. But there's also his role as a teacher, and the individual coaching and mentoring he has generously bestowed on so many from the next generation and even the one after that. He's a rare combination."

A North Carolina resident since 1967, when he became chancellor of the N.C. School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, Ward has had a remarkable career. Along with seven symphonies and numerous shorter works, his resume includes eight operas. One of the latter, 1961's "The Crucible," won a Pulitzer Prize and, a half-century later, is still staged regularly around the world.

"When I grow up, I want to be Robert Ward," said William Curry, Summerfest artistic director for the N.C. Symphony. "It's a privilege to have him here in our midst. He's representative of a certain type of American music, a generation of composers entrusted with reaching a broad audience. Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber were populist, melodic, romantic. They often used folk music, cowboy songs, spirituals. Robert's music still gets played all over the world, too. It's stood the test of time."

Ward grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, the youngest of five children in a musical family.

After World War II, Ward resumed his studies in New York and earned a degree at Juilliard, going on to teach there and at Columbia University. He also taught at Duke for a decade, following his seven-year tenure at the N.C. School of the Arts.

On a colleague's recommendation, Ward went to a performance of Arthur Miller's stage play "The Crucible" - which used the Salem witch trials of the 17th century as an allegory about the McCarthy era of anti-communist paranoia in America.

Ward worked connections to get a meeting with Miller, which led to a commission to write the music for the New York City Opera's version of "The Crucible." It received instant and massive acclaim, winning the Pulitzer in 1962.

Five decades later, "The Crucible" is still the best-known American opera this side of "Porgy and Bess."

The NEA Award is a fitting cap to his career. "I'm very happy. Somehow or other, I've always had lucky breaks to do what I want."