- The Washington Times - Friday, December 20, 2002

The hall was cavernous, the guests were in black tie, but the spirit was warmly informal as the Washington Performing Arts Society gathered some of its strongest supporters Tuesday night to celebrate Douglas Wheeler's 20 years as president.
Mr. Wheeler, who retired earlier this year, was roundly serenaded by nationally prominent artists whom he had introduced to Washington as well as vibrant local groups, some of whom owe their existence to his visionary support.
The four brass players of the Wynton Marsalis Septet, sharp and edgy as ever, left the rhythm section onstage and sauntered into the audience, playing directly to Mr. Wheeler.
"Doug has done so much for the little people and the big people of this community," Mr. Marsalis told the crowd. "He has such a powerful vision down-home and sophisticated at the same time that it's right in line with our music."
After that, Mr. Marsalis swung into an extended slow, mesmerizing solo, a riff on "Embraceable You."
True to form, Mr. Wheeler seemed to be enjoying the evening in a low-key way, but he was beaming when he recognized the "wonderful people" who had come to honor him: "Liz Lerman I gave her her first paycheck; Children of the Gospel that I helped form; Midori and Wynton Marsalis, whom I first brought to Washington. And it's interesting they are the ones who are giving back to the community."
Mr. Wheeler was upbeat about the arts scene in the capital. "This city has changed so much since I was first here in the '60s, [when] the National Symphony players only worked part time. Now there's a whole infrastructure, and artists can live and support themselves here."
The WPAS Children of the Gospel Choir raised the roof with its driving rhythms, soulfully performed and delivered with a snappy professionalism that was endearing.
Stanley Thurston, the choir's music director, noted that the group was Mr. Wheeler's idea. "Doug wanted to reach out to the community. He set up auditions with Eric Terhaine, he organized yearly summer workshops for the children, he brought in great gospel singers as guest artists to enrich and inspire the choir, he fought for funding, and he talked the board into following his lead."
During intermission. Mr. Wheeler's successor, Neale Perl, was overheard commenting to a friend that he knew of no other city in the country that would have such a celebration "with such diversity onstage from Midori to the Children of Gospel. It's quite a testimonial to Doug."
The gala evening at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, organized by co-chairwomen Alexine Jackson and Lena Ingegerd Scott, featured dinner at round tables decorated with roses and a champagne toast to the honoree.
During dinner, Ms. Lerman, fresh from her own honor this year as a MacArthur Foundation "genius" award winner, spoke of her gratitude to Mr. Wheeler.
"Not only did he say, 'Do it,' he was the first one backstage afterward with a big grin on his face," she recalled. "He steered the cultural life of this city into multicultural avenues and he treated everyone with respect and as equals."
Midori, a noted violinist, spoke of Mr. Wheeler in a similar vein backstage before performing selections by Fritz Kreisler, Jules Massenet and Pablo de Sarasate with a compelling combination of delicacy and steel.
"I first played on his series when I was 15," the diminutive musician said, adding that her mentor had "a very calming presence and a quiet sense of humor, too."
Melvin Deal's dynamic African American Heritage Dancers and Drummers began the evening's program with galvanizing energy, and the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange brought both sparkle and contemplation to the stage.
As a change of pace, halfway through the festivities, Ken Sparks, executive vice president of the Federal City Council, ambled out onstage in bluejeans and cowboy hat, sat down at the piano and delivered what he called a little ditty he had cooked up for the occasion an impression of Mr. Wheeler called "The Impresario."
With impeccable country twang and timing, he sang, "He learned what to do with an out-of-tune piano, learned how to soothe an out-of-sorts soprano," through a dozen verses, coaxing the audience to join in the chorus, "Let's hear it for the Impresario: runnin' the risk, takin' the chance, fillin' our lives with music and dance."

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