Wendell G. Wright, 78, veteran tenor, concert founder

May 28, 2000|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Wendell G. Wright, a veteran Baltimore tenor and founder of the Lois J. Wright Memorial Concert Series that encouraged and supported performances by minority classical musicians, died Wednesday of cancer at the Gilchrist Center for Hospice Care. He was 78 and lived in Towson.

The East Baltimore native, who grew up near Johns Hopkins Hospital, once said of his life's work: "My whole career is singing and music."

Singing since he was 9 years old, Mr. Wright had desired, after graduating from Douglass High School, to attend the Peabody Conservatory. Because he was an African-American, he was denied admission to the Mount Vernon Place institution.

Undeterred, he took private singing lessons in Baltimore and sang with choirs along the East Coast. He also became the first African-American to join Baltimore's Handel Choir and performed at the White House at one of President Richard M. Nixon's prayer breakfasts.

Because he had struggled against discrimination early in his career, Mr. Wright devoted his life and resources to helping young singers and musicians.

A longtime communicant and vestryman of St. Katherine's Episcopal Church in the 2000 block of Division St., in whose choir he had sung as a child, Mr. Wright persuaded his fellow church members to provide both scholarships and a venue for new artists.

"In my career, I have seen so many people with talent just give up because they could not get that one final break -- the break that allows them to perform somewhere where they are finally heard and appreciated," he told The Sun in a 1981 interview.

What began as the Young Artists Series at the church evolved into the Lois J. Wright Memorial Concert Series, named for Mr. Wright's first wife.

"He poured all of his energy, life, money and resources into helping young musicians so they could develop their talents. Instead of cursing the darkness, he lit a candle. He challenged people and institutions, and the barriers eventually broke down," said the Rev. Peter W. D. Bramble, former rector of St. Katherine's and now rector of the Episcopal Church of St. Mark in Brooklyn, N.Y.

"What he created was a farm system of black artists. He arduously worked at it and had a tremendous amount of success," he said Friday.

Mr. Wright took his campaign for diversity to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, where, as a result of his efforts, the orchestra created the Community Outreach Committee and appointed him chairman of the Inclusion Committee, which brought more African-Americans into the orchestra. He was active with the committee at the time of his death.

He also created "Live, Gifted and Black," an annual concert where African-American artists performed the work of African-American composers with the BSO.

In addition to being an impresario, Mr. Wright donated scholarship money for students and purchased instruments for musicians who couldn't afford them.

"He was very strong and steady. He had a goal and never wavered and helped us to focus on it. He was always very helping in giving us suggestions on African-American composers and artists," said Miryam Yardumian, BSO artistic administrator.

"He was a strong force in the life of a lot of African-American artists. He had a passion and stood up for his children," said April Haines of Union City, N.J., a soprano and member of the Metropolitan Opera Co. chorus.

It was Mr. Wright who brought Ms. Haines to the attention of BSO officials, who signed her on the spot after an audition he had arranged.

"He gave us a place and got us a hearing. He was an inspiration and a champion for us," said Ms. Haines.

Mr. Wright, a handsome man with a carefully trimmed mustache who favored tweed jackets and three-piece suits, had worked for 34 years as a calibrator at Edgewood Arsenal before retiring in the early 1970s.

Active until becoming ill three years ago, Mr. Wright was a vice president of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development and was a member of a Baltimore City public school committee that advised schools on art and music in the classroom.

He was married in 1947 to Lois J. Jiggers, who died in 1977. He was married in 1978 to Dorothy Boone, who survives him.

"One of his dreams was to get a CD released featuring the work of an African-American composer. Last week, I was able to let him listen to a CD featuring `I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes' by Dr. Adolphus Hailstork, a professor of music at Norfolk State University, and performed by the Morgan State University Choir under the direction of Dr. Nathan Carter. The recording was produced by the BSO, and it was a dream come true," said Mrs. Wright.

A memorial service will be held at noon tomorrow at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, 1108 Providence Road, Towson.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Wright is survived by a son, Granville Wright of Towson; two daughters, Leslie Green of Towson and Marsha Koger of Baltimore; and four grandchildren.

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