Henry Wong came to the United States from Hong Kong to finish school and study medicine, but things didn't go as planned. The lure of Western culture proved too great and pulled him away from his studies. As a result, Hopkins has one less doctor, but Baltimore gained a tireless, though unlikely, cultural advocate, who has quietly transformed the tiny space over his Mt. Vernon CD shop into one of the city's busiest concert venues.
Wong's An die Musik hosted a remarkable 238 shows last year—nearly all of them classical and jazz. Over the past eight years, Wong has brought a jaw-dropping array of world-class musicians to his intimate concert hall, which only holds about 80 people.
The long list of performers includes Bill Frisell, Eddie Palmieri, the International Contemporary Ensemble, and David Murray. The Monument Piano Trio and drummer Eric Kennedy have done artist residencies, jazz archivist Stuart Hudgins has hosted a film series, Peabody students and faculty regularly perform, and The New Yorker critic Alex Ross and BSO music director Marin Alsop have given talks. Last year, Wong started a nonprofit to help make his classical and jazz offerings more accessible to students and the community at large.
"We present classical and jazz music in all forms, from Baroque to modern and from mainstream to very avant-garde," Wong says, between sips of hot-and-sour soup at Zhongshan, a Chinese restaurant around the corner from An die Musik. "The more we can help introduce this music to the public, the better because we don't want to be cliquish. We want to make this music accessible to everyone, but it's an uphill battle."
It certainly is. According to recording-industry data, sales of classical music account for about 3 percent of the market, while jazz is just 1 percent, making financial viability a challenge for anyone focusing on those genres.
But the 52-year-old Wong—who lives with his wife, Lora, in Parkville—is undaunted. "I'm stubborn," he says matter-of-factly. "It's like running a marathon. It's gonna hurt and be painful, but I want to achieve that goal. If you don't sweat, you don't learn from the experience. And good experience can be earned through loss or failure.
"In fact, my parents encouraged me to fail many times. They believed that if you don't do well in school, good—work harder. Because, if you do well all the time, you can become jaded, and that's a bad thing."
Wong grew up in Hong Kong, which he describes as "cosmopolitan and fast." His father designed oil tankers and other large ships for Japanese clients; his mother liked to sing Chinese opera. An only child, Wong attended Jesuit-run schools and developed a fondness for tennis and Cat Stevens records.
At the age of 16, Wong came to Minnesota to attend prep school at St. John's Abbey, where he completed high school in just one year. He went on to Penn State to study biology and chemistry and got in the habit of listening to classical music during lab time. So when he moved to Baltimore in 1982 to finish school at Towson University and work various internships at Hopkins, he bought a student subscription to the BSO.
"I went to a lot of concerts and developed my knowledge of the music," he recalls. "I got encyclopedia books, and I read a lot about it. I also bought a lot of records, and I found that my gravitation toward music was stronger than the pull of medical research."
One night, Wong and a friend were sitting in a bar after a day of record shopping. After a few glasses of wine, they hit on the idea of opening their own music shop with a sleek, modernist look and an extensive inventory that would be Baltimore's version of Tower Records. "We actually went ahead and did that," Wong says, sounding genuinely amazed by that fact.
After all, he had no business experience at the time and no start-up funds. All he had was an extensive music collection and a concept for creating something unique. So he borrowed money from his parents—who were surprisingly supportive of his new venture—and opened An die Musik (which is German for "to music") in Towson's Investment Building in 1990.
It was an enormous 8,000-square-foot shop that stocked all types of music and, like Tower, had a separate room for classical. It distinguished itself in other ways, too. At the time, CDs were sold in cardboard "longboxes" that had little function and usually ended up in the landfill. So Wong removed all the store's CDs from the longboxes before putting them on sale and recycled all the cardboard. He also created listening stations, so customers could check out the music before purchasing it. Those practices landed him in the pages of Business Week and eventually became industry standards. "We were one of the first green stores," he notes.
Business was brisk, but overhead was high, and after Borders started selling CDs down the street, Wong downsized and moved to Mt. Vernon in 1996.
Located at 407 N. Charles Street, the new shop was 1,500 square feet and focused exclusively on classical and jazz. To help make ends meet, Wong developed a side hustle selling CDs at BSO, Lyric, and Shriver Hall concerts, as well as performances at Washington, D.C. embassies. "I was always happy selling music the other shops didn't seem to want," he says. "And if I didn't do it, who would?"
A call from the French Embassy led Wong to book his first concert. The embassy was hosting a French chamber group, and the ensemble had a week to kill in D.C. Could Wong host a show? So he cleared out the shop's back room and held a Sunday afternoon concert. About two dozen people showed up, everyone had a great time, and Wong began entertaining the possibility of booking more shows.
With CD sales dwindling, establishing a concert venue was enticing, and after Wong moved the shop next door to 409 N. Charles—the former site of the Eubie Blake museum—he turned the second floor into a performance space. He built a small stage at the far end of the room, set up rows of wingback chairs—which a customer procured from a local hotel that was getting rid of them—and rented a grand piano, which has since become a permanent fixture. "For what I pay on that piano, I could be driving a new Mercedes," says Wong, whose Toyota has 180,000 miles on it.
That first year, 2004, An die Musik booked 80 concerts; the second year, it presented over a hundred; and it's done over 200 a year since then. Wong—who runs the place with the help of two employees, George "Doc" Manning and Sean Johnson—admits that attendance is "up and down," but notes that touring musicians often return. "They could make a lot more money playing somewhere else," says Wong, "but they come to us because they like the environment, the room, the energy."
"I love, love, love the space!" says pianist Marilyn Crispell. "The ambiance is magical,."
Guitarist Marc Ribot, who's well known for working with Tom Waits and Robert Plant, has played An die Musik multiple times. "It's a great venue," he says. "There's literally no distraction from the music."
Bassist Mike Formanek, who teaches at Peabody, says it's been a great resource for both faculty and students, and notes, "Henry, Doc, and Sean are doing a great job keeping things going at a high level."
Wong wants to take things to an even higher level. Besides partnering for some concerts with institutions such as MICA and the Walters—where he's booked jazz legend Randy Weston on April 6—he's also started a nonprofit, MusikNOW, with an eye toward reaching out to students and underserved communities. "Our goal is to bring this music to all kids in school," he says. "We'd like to bring artists into the schools for workshops, so kids can experience the music. Then, we'll have a free concert, so the whole neighborhood, including the parents, can come out and enjoy it. We'd like to bring everyone together."
"Henry is a constant networker," says MusikNOW board member Yvonne Hardy-Phillips, "and I share his commitment to use the arts as a community-building tool."
Longtime employee Doc Manning—who is also a DJ at WEAA, Morgan State's radio station—points out that Wong "already has a long track record building bridges. He does it every day at An die Musik."
While lobbying for MusikNOW support, Wong has already started having student clinics—run by artist-in-residence Eric Kennedy—at An die Musik each month. For a nominal fee, students can play, get pointers, and pose questions to Kennedy and his guest artists. Then, in the evening, Kennedy performs, and students get discounted tickets.
Wong never expected to be in this position. "Coming here as an immigrant, you're supposed to follow everyone's dream of studying medicine and making a life for yourself," he says. "But if I can come here as an immigrant and do something to preserve and pass along the richness of this country's culture, I feel good about that.
"And we don't do it for money's sake, but for the sake of doing the right thing. In that way, it's my version of medicine. It's about helping people and providing something that's good for them."
After Wong finishes his meal and gets up to pay the bill, a diner at the next table flags him down. It's Morris Martick, the legendary restaurateur, who's become a regular customer at An die Musik since closing his eatery in 2008. "Hey, what's on tap for tonight?" he asks Wong.
"It's American jazz," Wong tells him. "You'll like it."
Exiting the restaurant, Wong pauses for a moment on Mulberry Street. "That man, Morris, is full of history," he says. "It's an honor just to know him."
Then, he walks purposefully toward Charles Street—to music.