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Baltimore’s Atwater puts soul into symphony

Stacy M. Brown | 9/13/2013, 6 a.m.
For more than a decade, Darin Atwater has put soul into the symphony. The longtime Charm City resident has earned ...
Darin Atwater is the founder and conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's Soulful Symphony. Courtesy Photos/The Hippodrome Foundation, Inc.

— For more than a decade, Darin Atwater has put soul into the symphony. The longtime Charm City resident has earned an international reputation as an artistic director, pianist, composer, conductor and cultural advocate for the arts while single-handedly redefining what once counted as a quintessentially English art form.

Atwater reigns as maestro over his own orchestra, the Soulful Symphony, a 75-member ensemble with several vocalists.

“Sure, my friends teased me at first, but my secret was to play tunes they knew like, ‘Rocky,’ or something from Stevie Wonder,” said Atwater, 43.

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Courtesy Photos/The Hippodrome Foundation, Inc.

Darin Atwater reigns as maestro over his own orchestra, the Soulful Symphony, a 75-member ensemble with several vocalists. In 2000, Atwater started conducting the orchestra, which developed a hip-hop symphony while also playing tunes from Motown, Jazz and Gospel. The season kicks off on Saturday, September 21, 2013 at the Hippodrome’s France Merrick Theatre in Baltimore City.

In 2000, Atwater started conducting the orchestra, which developed a hip-hop symphony while also playing tunes from Motown, Jazz and Gospel.

The Morgan State University graduate studied composition at Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory of Music, but left one year later after consulting with composer John Corigliano. “He said this isn’t the right place. He said that I had such a defined sound and Corigliano thought, by staying, I’d be put into a box,” Atwater said.

The foundation for Atwater’s stunning music career can be traced to the training he received growing up as a member of the Third Street Church of God in Washington, D.C.

“I had a great family home and a great church to really help me and that meant a great deal to me,” said Atwater.

In conjunction with the Hippodrome Foundation, Inc. (HFI), Atwater will play host to a full season of music at the Hippodrome Theatre beginning on Saturday, September 21, 2013 at 8 p.m.

The new season kicks off with a rendition of the orchestra’s popular "Say Amen Somebody" at the Hippodrome’s France-Merrick Performing Arts Center.

Atwater says the concert draws from a deep well of American gospel music and features original orchestrations.

“We perform the most treasured forms of American Roots music from Stevie Wonder to Elvis Presley,” Atwater said.

The composer says audiences will also be treated to excerpts from his Emmy Award winning “Song in a Strange Land,” which he composed in 2005. "Everything coalesced with that piece. I wanted to find a framework where I could elevate American vernacular music, and of course it all started with the spiritual. And for me, I said, ‘Let us start with that, and kind of weave together all the different musical products that have stemmed from the spiritual,’” he said.

The piece begins with music that came before the spiritual— the sound of the drums, which Atwater calls the heartbeat of all African music and its derivatives.

“First generations of African slaves brought drums and used them to communicate with each other, sometimes causing insurrections on plantations. So slave owners confiscated their instruments,” he said.

However, black slaves still found ways to express themselves in places where they were deprived of instruments.

"Any time you hear Negro spirituals, you hear them without any instrumentation," said Atwater, who laments about the lack of actual instruments being used at popular music concerts and records today. "There's a real strong vocal component. You don't have as much rhythmic freedom in gospel as you do with jazz and its cousins. So what I wanted to do was reintroduce the spiritual with that vocal component, along with all these other rhythmic possibilities.”

While Atwater plans to take his symphony on the road next year, his new season at the Hippodrome includes a Soulful Holidays concert on December 14, 2013, which will feature rousing renditions of Christmas carols, traditional holiday favorites to adaptations of Messiah and the Nutcracker.

On May 3, 2014, the final concert, “So Many Stars,” will benefit HFI programs that serve thousands of students every year. The concert will showcase a genre-bending journey through Classical, Jazz, Pop, and Country music featuring music from artists such as Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin and Leonard Bernstein. The evening will be capped off by the world premiere of Atwater's latest work, "So Many Stars," a concerto for his Soulful Symphony.

“This season definitely has something for everyone,” Atwater said. “It’s a celebration of American music, its symphonic music that draws from the richness of all the traditions realized in American culture.”

For tickets, call 410-547-SEAT or visit: www.ticketmaster.com. Individual concert tickets range from $25 to $250.