When the people whom Henry Wong loved left him behind — sometimes willingly, sometimes not — the 19th century Austrian composer Franz Schubert came through for him. So did the Italian soprano Renata Scotto.
As a child growing up in Hong Kong, Wong was raised by his grandmother while his parents lived in Japan. Overheard snatches of opera music evoked memories of his mother, who sang Chinese opera on area stages.
Later, after Wong had moved to the U.S. and became a research scientist in neurogenetics for Johns Hopkins University, Scotto’s beautiful voice kept him company when he worked late at night alone in his lab.
In 2014, when Wong effectively lost both of his elderly parents in a single day — his mother, who by then suffered from dementia, moved to a nursing home and his father died by suicide — Wong found solace inside An de Musik, the small and idiosyncratic concert hall he founded in a Mount Vernon townhouse in 1997.
The venue has become a critical cog in Baltimore’s musical ecosystem by providing classical music and jazz concerts that can’t be heard anywhere else. It takes its name from a Schubert composition and one of Wong’s favorite songs: “An die Musik,” which translates as “to the music.”
“O blessed art,” the song begins, “how often in dark hours, when the savage ring of life tightens ‘round me, have you kindled warm love in my heart and brought me to a better world?”
And there, in 32 words, is the 64-year-old Baltimorean’s philosophy of life.
“Music talks to everybody and has very strong healing powers,” Wong said. “If music can heal a person, it can heal a family. If it can heal a family, it can heal a neighborhood. And if it can heal a neighborhood, it can heal a society.”
In the words of Bryan Young, the bassoonist for the acclaimed Baltimore-based classical music group The Poulenc Trio, An die Musik is “legendary” among professional classical and jazz musicians.
“There aren’t a lot of places that are open to experimentation,” Young said, “places where you go deep into the weeds and perform a piece of music that only six people in the world love, but they really, really love it. You can take your idea to An die Musik, and Henry will schedule a concert.”
For instance, on Saturday afternoon, An die Musik will host the French pianist Helene Papadopoulos performing the fourth and final part of J.S. Bach’s Clavier-Übung series.
Papadopoulos has performed all four parts of the series at An die Musik during the past year ― a Herculean task requiring her to memorize more than 200 pages of musical scores. It is just the kind of half-crazed, death-defying stunt that appeals to Wong.
“You have to be a little obsessive,” Wong said. “You have to be on a mission.”
The series’ fourth part, commonly known as “The Goldberg Variations,” was seemingly composed for a performing octopus, since it requires the pianist to reach areas of the keyboard not generally accessible to humans with just two hands.
The pianist Glenn Gould notoriously hummed his way through it. Lesser performers have been known to swear. Earlier this year, one brave and reckless pianist attempting the “Variations” inside a Baltimore church was overheard muttering as he played, “This is impossible. I can’t do this.”
Though Papadopoulos has performed all four parts of the Clavier-Ubung in Europe, An die Musik is the only North American venue where she has attempted this feat.
“An die Musik is very unique and special,” she said. “You become part of a family. Some very famous artists have come through An die Musik. But Henry gets just as excited about promoting younger artists and local people and he doesn’t care if the concerts sell tickets. That’s rare.”
The venue has an unpretentious, shabby charm. The concert hall is up a flight of stairs (Wong’s great regret is that he hasn’t figured out how to make the old building handicapped-accessible) and contains about 75 chairs, all upholstered and second-hand. The stage is surrounded by bright yellow walls.
Downstairs is the lounge and waiting area filled with plants and stacks of paintings from Wong’s personal art collection and CDs. Some are from An die Musik’s former incarnation as a music store, which originally was founded in 1990 in Towson. Others are recent releases from musicians whom Wong says he attempts to discourage (apparently with little success) from dropping off copies. All are for sale.
On the walls are photographs of famous folk who have passed through An die Musik, either to perform or for book signings and other events: the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, BSO music director laureate Marin Alsop, soprano Renee Fleming, and pianists Leon Fleisher and Simone Dinnerstein.
Tickets to An die Musik concerts range from $10 for students to $35. If that price seems low, concert-goers can thank Wong, who has never drawn a salary.
“I’m not in it for the money,” he said. “I’m doing it out of conviction.”
Before the pandemic, An die Musik routinely produced 220 concerts a year. Now, Wong is down to 180. Compare that to venues such as the Hippodrome Theatre, which has 107 performances scheduled from August 2023 through June 2024.
“One hundred eighty concerts in a year is insane,” Young said. “Two hundred and twenty is mind-blowing.
“I think Henry sees this as a community service. I don’t know how he keeps the place afloat.”
Ask Wong the same question, and he will reply that he is an only child who spent an inheritance wisely.
Wong’s father was a naval officer who became a famous shipbuilder. But the company was located in Japan, so Wong’s parents lived in one country, and he was raised in another by his maternal grandparents.
He left Hong Kong at age 16 to attend boarding school in Minnesota. From his early years, he was on a science track.
“I have no training in music at all,” he said. “The only question was whether I would get a medical degree or a Ph.D.”
While Wong was studying biology at Towson University, he took a summer job as a research assistant at Johns Hopkins Medical School. He remained there for the next eight years, searching for the genetic marker that causes a form of muscular dystrophy.
One night, at 4 a.m., he was working in his lab and drinking tea while listening to classical music on the radio. Out came Scotto’s voice singing “Casta Diva” from Vincenzo Bellini’s opera, “Norma.”
It stopped Wong in his tracks.
As he puts it: “I turned around in my chair and said, ‘What is that?’
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Wong began to haunt record stores, pouring over music magazines and encyclopedias to identify the best recordings. He spent so much time in one store that an employee asked him if he ever thought of opening his own place.
“I called my mother and told her that I was going to stop being a scientist so I could open a record store,” he said.
“She said I’d lost my mind. Then I told her I needed $300,000.”
Despite her misgivings, Wong’s mother came through with the cash. And her son has never looked back.
“With science,” Wong said, “you’re limited in how much you can help people. Someone has to be diagnosed with a very bad disease before researchers can discover something that might help future patients. Music is bigger than that.”
Maybe Wong can’t end world hunger or solve global warming. But he can operate a concert hall where people can spend an afternoon listening to glorious music and possibly, emerge a little bit stronger.
“I can’t save the whole culture,” Wong said, “but I’m doing the part I think is important.”