Unsung hero offers venue for classical musicians

November 22, 1990|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,Evening Sun Staff

Wendell G. Wright has been singing tenor for 60 of his 69 years in Baltimore. Because he was black he couldn't study at the Peabody Conservatory as he wanted to when he was young, but that didn't stop him from studying voice elsewhere, singing all over town, in Washington and Boston, and being the first black in the Handel Choir.

Without a mentor, Wright had the usual frustrations of a young artist trying to show his stuff and get concert dates. But in churches and recitals, he kept singing such great songs as Handel's "Where E're You Walk" and Harry T. Burleigh's spiritual arrangements like "Sometimes I feel like a motherless child." Of course, Bach's B Minor Mass was always nearby.

All this time, Wright made a vow: One day he would try to make it easier for generations of musicians after him.

For the past 15 seasons in more than 125 free concerts and this Sunday again, Wright has kept his word -- a word known in some parts of town, but not all, as the Lois J. Wright Concert Series for classical musicians.

Most but not all of its performers have been black and many were from Baltimore. Over the years in different settings, the series has featured 220 soloists among 729 musicians. Some were getting their first chance at public recital while others were established role models.

Numerous black musicians attest to Wright's contributions.

Kevin Short, bass baritone who grew up in Waldorf in Charles County has sung with the Metropolitan Opera and recently with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. His typical story: "Wendell's series was the first opportunity I had after college. Lots of young artists came through that program."

Or, cellist Troy Stuart: "What a kind, warm-hearted, sweet man . . . he created a real stepping stone for black artists. He's also helped other minorities and whites with that series."

Baritone Ben Holt, who died of cancer this year, sang in the 1981-82 Wright series and afterward wrote the board:

"There is in me an incredible feeling of pride and joy at the effectiveness and accessibility of your organization, most especially due to the fact that you are an organization of black people, helping black people without rhetoric and without bowing of the heads: 'Bless you.'"

Other alumni are George Shirley, Metropolitan Opera tenor; Mattiwilda Dobbs, coloratura soprano and the first minority soloist at La Scala; Eric Conway, pianist, and Jerris Cates, soprano.

At 4 p.m. Sunday, Baltimore can hear the series' third concert of the season. Kelvin McClendon and Danny Kelley, duo-pianists from Houston, will perform at Douglas High School Auditorium, 2301 Gwynn Falls Parkway, across from the Mondawmin Shopping Center.

When you listen to Wright's peppy voice, there's no doubt he's the lyrical kind of tenor. Matching that are his tweedy attire, trim -- mustache and cheerleading for classical musicians. This summer a curriculum study panel, he came down hard on the city school system for downplaying the arts.

The time for Wright's old dream to help others finally arrived in the mid-1970s. He had just retired from 34 years in civilian work at Edgewood Arsenal. His wife Lois, a contralto, sang with him at the Church of St. Katherine of Alexandria on Division and Presstman streets. Together they formed a concert artist series for minority musicians needing a classical music outlet. They used a generic-sounding "concert artists" name.

"The recitals were all at the church that spring," Wright recalled. "I gathered the church members together, told them we're starting a concert series. We asked 'Where can we get the money?' From the start, we wanted to pay every artist. We collected $5,500 the first year."

The first concert was in February, 1976, and the artist was bass LeRoy L. Dorsey. Three other recitals that spring were by pianist F. Corine Anderson, tenor Sylvester R. Graves and soprano Daisy Jackson.

Then, tragedy struck. Lois Wright had a stroke in the summer and died. The church vestry met to discuss the future. Without Wright present, the vestry decided to back the series to the hilt and change its name to the Lois J. Wright Concert Series.

The rest is not so much history as legend among Wright's friends. In recent times, Wright's second wife, Dorothy, has helped organize the concerts. "She's not a musician but she's a big advocate of the series," Wright said. Marcella A. Holland chairs the 12-member board. Wright and Harry L. Hamrick, comptroller, work with a 17-member committee.

Recent grants sustaining the series have come from Southwestern Bell Foundation, Baltimore Community Foundation, Maryland State Arts Council, William Baker Jr. Memorial Fund and City Arts.

Meanwhile, Wright can't stop singing, at St. Katherine's, in the men's choir of Douglas Memorial Church and with Douglas Memorial Chancel Choir. When he speaks of his life, it isn't about work at Edgewood Arsenal. "My whole career," he said, "is singing and music."

Concert schedule

After the Nov. 25 recital, the spring schedule of 4 p.m. Sunday concerts is as follows:

* Feb. 17, violinist Diane Monroe and pianist Martin David Jones perform at the New Community College of Baltimore, Liberty Campus, Fine Arts Center, 2901 Liberty Heights Ave.

* March 17, soprano Michelle Howard and clarinetist Marcus Eley perform at St. Katherine's Church, Division and Presstman streets.

* April 21, soprano Yvette Vanterpool performs at St. Katherine's Church.

* May 19, Baritone Eugene Holmes performs at site to be announced.

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