WARD: Quintet for oboe and string quartet. Raleigh Divertimento for nonet. Bath County Rhapsody for piano and string quartet. Arioso and Tarantelle for viola and piano. First Symphony.
Joseph Robinson (oboe); Ciompi Quartet; Czech Nonet; Jane Hawkins (piano); Jonathan
Bagg (viola); Czech Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra/Alan Balter.
Albany TROY 1063 () (DDD) TT: 67:36

On again, off again. At one time, Robert Ward ranked as one of the fair-haired younger American composers, a future bright light. He studied with Hanson and Rogers at Eastman and with Jacobi at Juilliard. Even his student works appeared in major venues. The highpoint of his composing career occurred in 1961, with the premiere of his opera, The Crucible, for which he received a Pulitzer. Unfortunately, American music moved another way. Ward's idiom, essentially the neoclassicism regnant between the world wars, younger composers regarded as played out. Post-Webernian serialists (and Elliott Carter) rose as temporary kings of the hill. The search for an " American" musical idiom was seen as corny, and composers aimed to become "international." At this point, serious critics have pretty much written Ward off, but even so, he had a fairly late run. By 1955, such critics were sniffing at the likes of Piston, Diamond, and interwar Copland.

After The Crucible, Ward never made as big a splash, although he continued to compose (including five more operas). In fact, his Grove entry has him dead in 1994 -- a neat trick, since he has produced new work since then. To some extent, one can explain this by his moving from New York, where the arts receive the most critical attention, to North Carolina, where he became Chancellor of the North Carolina School of the Arts and, later, a professor at Duke University. However, the high inspiration that fired so many of his early works sputtered in fits and starts in the later. In general, the music fizzled out, although here and there you could still find a late live firecracker. This CD presents a fair picture, I think, of Ward's career, early and late, risky and safe.

I'll take the safe stuff first. The oboe quintet (2005) constitutes a well-written bore, hardly worth the trouble and a long way from the quartets of William Schuman and Peter Mennin, Ward's rough contemporaries. It's a "sociable" quartet, as opposed to a spiritual autobiography, like many of the Haydns but lacking the genius. In 1991, Bath County, Virginia, commissioned the Bath County Rhapsody (1991). They wanted a piece of music that told the history of the place. Ward writes that he accepted the job since he couldn't think of a programmatic chamber work off the top of his head. He came up with essentially a movie score: the mists of times past, the discovery of the place by the Native Americans, the arrival of the white settlers, the Civil War, a final mountaineer's celebration, and a final return to those old-timey mists. While the work has its moments, in general it shows Ward's invention at a very low point. The music for the Indians comes directly from
" Injun" music in Thirties B and C cowboy pictures.

On the other hand, in 1997, the Raleigh, North Carolina, Chamber Music Guild engaged Ward to write the Raleigh Divertimento, which the composer made originally for the Aspen Quintet. Later, the famed Czech Nonet asked him for a work they could play on an American tour, so he reworked the piece for that group. I've not heard the original, but the nonet is a honey. Springy and athletic, like the Piston and Martinu works in the genre, it harbors no program; Ward has merely made a handsome neoclassical object, and of course beauty is its own excuse for being.

The 1955 Arioso and Tarantelle Ward composed in memory of the conductor Hans Kindler, who had fostered Ward's early career. I had heard this in a cello-and-piano version, and it didn't impress me then. However, this was probably due to the performance, because violist Jonathan Bagg and pianist Jane Hawkins give this little work its due. The Aria owes much to Hindemith. Indeed, a
great deal of Ward's slow-and-solemn movements do; he seems to regard it as the coin of High Seriousness. However, one senses a character behind the notes warmer than Hindemith's and feels that Ward has expressed a personal loss.

Ward produced his official First Symphony, and it received its first professional performance under Kindler and the National Symphony, while Ward was still a student at Juilliard. A short, compact work of about thirteen minutes, it betrays its student origins mostly in its structure. Each of its three movements follows the same formal strategy: two subjects, developed separately, and combined in the recap. The harmony again derives from Hindemith, but Ward lacks Hindemith's formal and contrapuntal virtuosity. Still, the work insists on and rewards a listener's attention. One can easily see why people expected great things from the young composer. It has an intensity that the oboe quintet and the Bath County Rhapsody lack.

The performances are quite fine, with the Czech Nonet outstanding in the Raleigh Divertimento. The symphony is marred by a bass hum and what sounds like overprinting -- that is, a series of after-echoes after a large climax followed by a lull. I didn't think this was possible in digital
recording, but there you are.

S.G.S. (November 2009)