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Musings: Concert honors Robert Wykes at 85

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 16, 2011 - I telephoned Bob Moore at the Gateway Arch the other day to ask him a question that had nothing to do with gondolas or anything else related to the big plans for the renovation of the Arch grounds and environs.

Moore is the historian of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, and he is approachable and exceptionally informed about all things Arch. My calling him was about music in this instance, in particular the music of an old friend, the composer Robert Wykes. I needed a number from Moore, one that would give some quantitative heft to more customary qualitative evaluations.

Besides his affable and engaging nature and his energetic approach to life, and his being rather encyclopedic in matters musical in the region, Bob Wykes is one of those determined artists who at some point arrives at a stage where he or she can be called a living American treasure.

Robert Arthur Wykes was born in Aliquippa, Pa., on May 19, 1926. He studied flute as a child, and after service in World War II, pursued music at the Eastman School, took his master's in music theory, and landed a job teaching at Bowling Green (Ohio) State University, where his opera, "The Prankster," made its debut in 1952. In those days, he also played in the Toledo Symphony Orchestra.

In 1952, he moved to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where he received his Ph.D. Lucky for this region's musical life, he joined the faculty of Washington University in 1955 and was named full professor in 1965. He continued to play the flute with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and the Studio for New Music from time to time.

Along the way, he married the spectacular Roz, and together they composed Sara, Rachel and Evan. All that biography is important, of course, because it reveals the fine details of a personality and participant in our common history. Because of it and because of its being the filling yarn of the larger and entirely individual tapestry, he has become a fixture of the modern American artistic tradition, carrying the banner of his music to help all of us understand the importance -- the necessity -- of marching together in the advance guard to urge art forward.

His life has been distinguished by work, composing and performing and teaching, serving as composer-in-residence at the Djerassi Foundation in Woodside, Calif., and as visiting scholar at the Computer Center for Research in Music and Acoustics at Stanford.

His music has been performed all over the place by all sorts of musical organizations: the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Minnesota Orchestra, the National Orchestra and the Pro Arte Symphony and the Denver Symphony.

In reply to a question about things most memorable, he mentioned collaborations with artists in other disciplines: Howard Jones, William Kohn and Lucian Krukowski.

One of his greatest and grandest compositions is "Adequate Earth," created in tandem with the late poet Donald Finkel. This sprawling masterpiece -- the big monster, Wykes called it -- was scored for full orchestra, choirs and a soloist. The book-length poem was based on Finkel's sojourn at McMurdo Sound in Antarctica.

But back to Bob Moore and the numbers.

In 1954, the late documentary filmmaker Charles Guggenheim established the first iteration of Guggenheim Productions in St. Louis. He and Wykes got to know each other during those years, before Guggenheim and his family moved on to Washington. The two young artists began working together in 1958.

Wykes described Guggenheim as a genius of the first order, and their friendship continued until Guggenheim's death from cancer in 2002. In Guggenheim's obituary in the Post-Dispatch, Wykes said of all the artists he'd worked with, Guggenheim was one of the most complete.

Wykes became for a time Guggenheim's composer of choice for the soundtracks of his pictures. Guggenheim made movies about both Robert Kennedy and John F. Kennedy, and Wykes wrote the music. "Robert Kennedy Remembered" from 1968 was created on an extraordinary four-week fast-track schedule after Robert Kennedy was assassinated, and was shown at the Democratic National Convention the summer after his assassination in early June, and aired simultaneously on all three broadcast networks.

Documentaries, as Wykes noted, were the soul of Guggenheim's genius and Wykes, putting his own genius to work, wove his music into Guggenheim's films and it became inseparable from the artistic whole. In 1964, Guggenheim was commissioned to create a movie about the construction of the Arch. "Monument to the Dream" was nominated for the Academy Award in 1967 for documentary short subject, and won the Gold Mercury Award in 1968 at the Venice Film Festival. Wykes composed the music.

That brings us back to Bob Moore.

How many people would you say have heard the music of Robert Wykes in "Monument to the Dream," I asked him. "Hundreds of thousands?"

"Hundreds of thousands?" he said with a laugh. No way. "They number in the millions." I'm one of that multitude who has seen the movie and heard the Wykes soundtrack; you may be also. I never fail to be moved by the intricacy and appropriateness of the haunting music in its marriage with the visual magic of Guggenheim's images in this testament to the nobility of human industry and hard, dangerous, ultimately satisfying work.

Millions. That's a number to reckon with. So too is 85. Thus, on 2/22/11 (an interesting number itself), the department of music at Washington University will honor Wykes with a concert of his chamber music. The performance will be at 7:30 p.m. in the Danforth University Center's Goldberg Formal Lounge.

The public's invited to this very special concert and celebration, and the man being honored will be in the midst of it, taking the part of the reader in Lake Music, which he composed in 2004 for solo bass flute. The concert will bring a man's art and his life in communion with colleagues and friends. Overall, it has promise of being an affecting experience for him, and similarly, a lesson in living for millions of the rest of us whose existences Bob Wykes has touched so firmly and so well.

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