Connecting Cultures Through Concertos

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Author: MIrin Fader

Thirty years ago, Austria established a number of councils within the United States to unite existing Austrian clubs and associations. Seventeen years ago, to celebrate the friendship and cultural contributions and relationships between Austria and the U.S., President Clinton declared September 26 Austrian-American Day. This September, in honor of Austrian-American day and the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Austrian-American Council of North America, the Council introduced an “In Recognition of Extraordinary Service” award for individuals who have contributed extensively to fostering Austrian-American artistic and cultural exchanges.

 

Last weekend, an Occidental professor became the first-ever recipient of this noteworthy award.

“I was quite surprised, but nonetheless very touched and quite pleased. It was a beautiful event,” Professor Robert Ward, piano professor in the Occidental Music Department, said. He recently received an “In Recognition of Extraordinary Service” award from the Austrian-American Council for his advocacy of music and longtime work as the Artistic Advisor to the Council.  

The Austrian-American Council of North America connects Austria with the United States in a variety of ways to promote cultural, educational and humanitarian values between the two nations. “[The Council] fosters good will and better understanding between the people of Austria and the United States,” the official website for the Council explains. Austrian cultural events like a chamber music concert Ward arranged featuring performers on tour with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra last February are frequently sponsored by the Council.

Ward has contributed to this cultural exchange by facilitating the process of bringing noteworthy Austrian musicians to Los Angeles and, more recently, by annually taking a group of talented young musicians to perform and study in Vienna under the guidance of Austrian musicians.

A strong passion for Viennese culture, history and music has permeated Ward’s work as a musician from a young age. After studying Viennese composers during his formative years as a student, he was able to study music in Vienna, deepening his connection to the city and its arts. “Vienna provided an expressive framework for my music making and formed aspirations which have guided me ever since. And compelled me to take the next steps,” he said in an interview with Connect: U-S-A, the newsletter of the Austrian Consulate General.

Ward began to bridge Austrian and American cultures during his time as vice president of the California State Music Teacher’s Association in the early 1990s. During this time, he brought many Austrian musicians and artists to California to perform, lecture and conduct master classes at state conventions. And always, he brought them to the Occidental campus for a weekend seminar.

Ward eventually began coordinating such intercultural events at the national level and received a presidential commendation for “outstanding service to the Music Teachers National Association” for international outreach.

“Cultural exchange is a powerful tool for uniting people,” he said. “Music can connect people. It’s a language. Fewer misunderstandings would happen if we spoke music.”

Considering this, Ward decided that reversing this process could be an even greater method of exchange. To accomplish this, he co-founded Concert*Fest*Austria with Austrian musician Robert Lehrbaumer ten years ago and has been organizing the festival every summer since.

“It’s a wonderful international mix of students,” Ward said. “We develop a musical family. We encourage everyone to do their best. It’s a very supportive program.”

The festival provides motivated musicians with an invaluable opportunity to learn in Vienna, home to some of the world’s most famous musicians and composers. The students take private lessons, attend classes and of course, experience the historic musical heart of the city firsthand. The unique experience even includes walking tours of the city led by Professor Ward.

“You won’t get the same experience in America as you would walking the streets of Mozart,” Ward said. “There is a connection you will feel with the music when you are there. The students get to be at the source of the music. It is very spiritual for those who deeply care for art.”

Professor Ward enjoys bringing eager musicians to Austria, aiming to share his own experience studying abroad in Vienna as an undergraduate student with an upcoming younger generation of artists.

“When I see the looks on students’ faces in awe of the music, their professors and deeply moved by the atmosphere, I remember myself feeling that same way 40 years ago when I was in Vienna,” he said.

This sentiment was clear in his acceptance speech for the Austrian-American Council award, where he expressed his devotion to artistic cross-cultural exchange.

“The award represents your recognition of our common mission: to promote cultural exchange between Austria and America,” he said. “One of the most important gifts we can give the world is the sharing of those miracles of human expression which we call ‘the Arts.'”

Indeed, Professor Ward has been sharing the art of music, working with students both around the globe and locally. Currently, Ward is Professor of Chamber Music at the California Institute of Technology, Professor of Piano at California State University Los Angeles, and Piano Professor at Occidental, where he has taught for the past 20 years.

One piano student, Biochemistry major Evan Choate (junior), expressed his appreciation for Ward’s passionate teaching style.

“He’s helped make piano fun again by teaching me important piano skills and by exposing me to a wide variety of piano repertoire… Mainly, though, I like his enthusiasm for music, a characteristic that rubs off onto me every lesson,” he said.

Alexis Holmes (sophomore) explained how Ward tailors his teaching style to fit the needs of each student. “He uses sports for me to get me to understand music because I am an athlete and that really helps make his points relatable for me, so I learn much more effectively,” she said.

In turn, Professor Ward values the sense of cultural awareness and diversity that is prevalent at Occidental. “I’m very comfortable at Oxy,” he said. “It’s not just an isolated enclave focused on itself. Oxy always reaches out.”

No matter where and to whom Ward is teaching, he is deeply passionate about sharing his knowledge and love of music. “I wanted to pass my experience in Vienna on,” he said. “That was 40 years ago. The torch is passed now. My professors have passed away. Now I’m one of those professors. It’s always a very emotional moment for me.”

Despite having toured internationally as a soloist and, more recently, conducted orchestras, Ward emphasizes his enthusiasm not just for performing, but for teaching music and providing experiences for young, budding musicians. “It’s very important to do something for the next group coming along. That’s why I’m a teacher. I love it. It’s my calling,” he said.

As Professor Ward reflects on his 30-year music teaching career after another summer of teaching in Austria, he hopes to continue sharing his passion for music with the world. “Music is one of those things that no matter how old you get, there is energy and love in pursuing it,” he said. “As a professor and musician, my mission is to make sure the arts survive. They are invaluable to socie
ty.”

Professor Ward said his love for music and music instruction is inexhaustible, despite the already long length of his successful career. “People ask me, ‘When are you going to retire?'” he said. “I don’t think I could ever retire from being a musician.”

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