Arts & Culture

Culture Club

For 15 years, Henry Wong and An die Musik have been quietly making music history in Mt. Vernon.

Watering can in hand, Henry Wong casually mentions that he hopes to soon bring iconic composer Carla Bley to An die Musik Live!, the small, idiosyncratic concert hall he operates in Mount Vernon. He’s in the process of tending to the array of plants arranged inside the front window, where flyers for upcoming shows face out onto Charles Street. Dressed in a blue Polo shirt and khakis, the 61-year-old owner circulates among the pots, tilting the can at regular intervals. “She would be a great fit for us,” he says.

Such a prestigious booking may seem far-fetched for a small venue like this, considering Bley is a National Endowment for the Arts jazz master accustomed to fancier digs like the Kennedy Center or Lincoln Center. Yet Wong could make it happen. He has, over the past 15 years, attracted an unlikely, but impressive, array of musicians to an unadorned and unpretentious former townhome that holds about 75 people.

The list includes guitarist Bill Frisell, pianist Simone Dinnerstein, percussionist Kahil El’Zabar, saxophonists Gary Bartz and David Murray, and many artists associated with ECM, a record label revered for its genre-blurring releases. The likes of Pulitzer-winning composer Julia Wolfe, New Yorker critic Alex Ross, and BSO maestra Marin Alsop have also appeared at An die Musik to discuss their work.

An die Musik has, since 2004, hosted a staggering 4,000-plus events, many of them jazz and contemporary classical concerts. It won Best Jazz Venue in this year’s All About Jazz reader’s poll and was cited as a “Great Jazz Venue” by Downbeat magazine from 2016-2018.

At first glance, it wouldn’t appear to be an exceptional spot for music. It’s up a steep flight of steps, making the load-in of instruments and equipment a challenge. The no-frills performance space, painted crab fat yellow, measures 25 by 42 feet, and the stage occupies a third of the space and sits just a foot off the floor; performers walk from the green room through an audience seated in tattered old armchairs to get to it. For world-class musicians, it’s hardly ideal.

“You don’t expect anything but music—good music presented with the respect it deserves.”

When asked what makes An die Musik such a celebrated venue, Wong sets aside the watering can and ticks off a list of things it doesn’t offer: no food, no signature drink, no TV, no trendy theme nights, and no DJ or pre-recorded music playing between sets. It isn’t alluring, or sexy. “We are a wholesome place,” says Wong, using a term usually reserved for children’s programming and church picnics. “Here, you don’t expect anything but music—good music presented with the respect it deserves.”

It’s why it appeals to ECM artists, who, according to Pitchfork, have produced “some of the deepest, most transporting music” of the past half-century. “An die Musik is unique in its intimate feel, warm acoustics, and serious listening atmosphere,” says ECM representative Tina Pelikan, “which makes it perfect for much of the music released by ECM.”

The name, according to Wong, says it all: An die Musik translates from the German as “to the music.” It’s the title of a favorite Schubert composition, a piece the BBC once described as “a prayer of thanksgiving to the divine art of music.”

“That’s what we offer,” says Wong, “a total commitment to music and its performance. It’s more about education than entertainment.”

That sort of mission might come across as single-minded, especially at a time when concert venues face increasingly fierce competition for people’s leisure time, but Wong weds it to a desire to nurture culture and build community. Though his unflagging adherence to that mission can make him come across as stubborn or insular, he’s actually quite personable and social. He’d just as soon share a delicious meal with you as a string quartet.

In fact, it’s time for lunch.

At Brown Rice inside the nearby Mt. Vernon Marketplace, Wong orders the bibimbap with multigrain rice (“it’s healthier”), an egg (“for protein”), and kimchi (“it tastes good”). Though Wong might espouse the nutritional benefits of Korean rice bowls, he’s actually more interested in the social aspects of sharing a meal, the bonding experience it can facilitate.

Wong shares food, like music, with the people in his orbit. He has been known to pass out packages of homemade biscotti to friends at Christmastime, or gift salmon filets after returning from trips to the Pacific Northwest. He organizes an annual banquet dinner at Ellicott City’s Asian Court for Chinese New Year. He invites friends and An die Musik staff and selects the 10-course menu himself. Baltimore staffers have occasionally attended the annual event, which Wong views as more than a New Year’s celebration—it’s also a celebration of friendship. “Food, a glass of wine, and music tap into our shared humanity,” he says, “so it’s really about sharing and doing for others. That sort of thing comes from my upbringing.”

Wong was born and raised in Hong Kong, where his father ran a shipping company and his mother, who enjoyed opera, worked as an accountant. An only child, he devoted himself to schoolwork, playing tennis, and rooting for Liverpool’s soccer team. He’s been a fan for nearly 50 years, and An die Musik patrons will occasionally spot him in a bright red Liverpool Football Club jersey with “young warriors” stitched over the right breast.

Wong recalls seamen friends dropping in to see his dad, who’d open beers and trade stories with them for hours. At mealtime, a dinner invitation was inevitably extended, and the visit might stretch into the evening. Although Wong usually remained in his room doing homework, he heard the laughter and animated conversation and registered how his parents’ hospitality generated warmth and goodwill.

“Henry has never been about just making a buck . . . It’s about sharing art.”

At 16 years old, he came to the United States to attend a boarding school at St. John’s Abbey—“famous for its bread,” notes Wong—in Collegeville, Minnesota. “When I [arrived in] America, I was by myself and was the only Chinese student at my school. The way I learned to survive was by sharing everything. When you share, people like you. People open up to you.”

After graduating, he embarked on a science track: studying biology and chemistry at Penn State and Towson University, interning at Shock Trauma’s ICU, and eventually doing medical research at Johns Hopkins. Classical music offered something of a respite, as well as a connection to his mother back in Hong Kong, and Wong became increasingly fond of listening to opera and Bach while compiling data and writing reports. In his scant free time, he pored over issues of Gramophone magazine and music encyclopedias to determine what were the best recordings, which he sought out on record-buying jaunts to shops like Tower Records in D.C.

After one such trip, Wong was having a drink with a friend who floated the idea of them opening a place of their own. And in 1990, they did exactly that, with a sprawling 8,000-square-foot store specializing in classical and jazz in Towson’s Investment Building. The shop was called An die Musik. “It turned out that my gravitation towards music was stronger than the pull of medical research,” says Wong.

As a result, Hopkins lost a researcher, and Baltimore gained a cultural caretaker.

An die Musik, the music store, was innovative. It specialized in hard-to-find titles, pioneered the use of listening stations and eco-friendly CD packaging, and brought in luminaries like Yo-Yo Ma and the BSO’s David Zinman for in-store appearances.

But as CD sales declined, the store downsized and relocated to Mt. Vernon, and Wong shifted his focus to live music in the early 2000s.

George “Doc” Manning has known Wong for nearly three decades and worked at both the record store and the concert hall. “Henry has never been about just making a buck,” says Manning. “He has a higher purpose that isn’t about being commercial; it’s about sharing art.”

Manning—who also hosts Morgan State radio’s long-running jazz show, In the Tradition—lauds his friend’s goal of “reaching everybody by realizing the music is about all of us, all communities,” he says. “Henry pushes the idea that you can’t leave anyone out, because everyone benefits from experiencing these different types of music. It raises the level of consciousness.”

A glance at the concert schedule illustrates just how expansive, and inclusive, An die Musik can be. September’s shows include Croatian guitarist Ana Vidovic, Cuban pianist Cèsar Orozco, and blues/soul singer Billy Price. The schedule also features students and local performers—Peabody pupils host jazz jams, and Dunbar Jazz Band alumni have a regular gig—because, “local people should see local faces onstage,” says Wong, “and the more you engage young musicians, the more the music is alive; young people contribute something you haven’t heard before.”

Wong doesn’t see the music stopping any time soon. He and his wife, Lora, don’t have children or any pressing family commitments and live modestly in Parkville. As a result, Wong says, “I am able to pursue my personal dream, though I don’t actually consider myself successful. I consider myself a survivor, and a caretaker of music that is historically important. Do I insist it is the right formula? No, but it is my vision. I’m always looking for people who share this dream, and I hope to one day pass the torch to someone else. If that happens, the legacy will be all about An die Musik, not about Henry Wong.”

“I’m always looking for people who share this dream. I hope to one day pass the torch.”

Wong, between bites from his rice bowl, spots vocalist Billy Price in the Mt. Vernon Marketplace crowd and calls to him. Price, a recent Pittsburgh-to-Baltimore transplant, played An die Musik for the first time in June and tells Wong he’s excited to return this month. “Your place reminds me of playing in France,” he says. “The French listen to the music intently, and they treat it as a serious art form. Your place brings that same vibe to Baltimore.”

Wong thanks Price and quickly deflects the praise, saying, “It is an honor for us to present a true legend; you’re an amazing performer.”

And before the singer departs, Wong invites Price to join him sometime for dim sum.