Trumpeting Diversity

Darin Atwater, left, founder of the Soulful Symphony, listens to a solo by Dante Winslow during rehearsal at Strathmore. Being surrounded by black musicians is
Darin Atwater, left, founder of the Soulful Symphony, listens to a solo by Dante Winslow during rehearsal at Strathmore. Being surrounded by black musicians is "amazing," a member says. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 22, 2007

What strikes you first are the musicians -- most are African American, and on this night, they are decked out in, to use street parlance, "high-low" -- blazers over T-shirts and jeans instead of penguin suits and long black skirts.

There is Denna Purdie of Upper Marlboro, a former cellist with "The President's Own" U.S. Marine Band. On violin, Wayman McCoy III, a marketing and sales executive from Germantown. And California resident John Wineglass, an Emmy-winning daytime television music composer, helps on viola.

They number 75 in all -- classically or church trained musicians who come together to play their own brand of music under the banner of the Soulful Symphony, led by native Washingtonian and award-winning musician Darin Atwater, 36. The charismatic Atwater, who lives in Baltimore, oversees music programs at Celebration Church in Columbia. He said he created the symphony in 2000 as a way to present African American cultural expression to a wider audience and to bring more minorities to symphonic music.

"There's just nothing like it," said McCoy, who has played with Atwater since the inaugural Soulful Symphony concert. "Usually, in an orchestra situation, there are only a few African Americans, and often there are only a few in the audience. To be on the stage playing this beautiful music, composed and conducted by a black composer, surrounded by all of these very talented African American musicians is just amazing. I really can't even describe it."

Neither can many of the audience members at the symphony's often sold-out concerts, such as the one Friday at the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda.

From the first few chords, the music sets itself apart. Classical, played on lilting violins and resonant cellos. Jazz, buttressed by soulful saxophones and trombones. Rhythm and blues, powered by a rollicking percussion section. Gospel, celebrated by an elegant choir with angelic voices.

There was even hip-hop, which on this particular evening stole the show, leaving well-heeled patrons bopping their heads and waving manicured hands as they partied in the aisles.

"Ain't no party like a hip-hop party!" the 20-something members of the Baltimore-based rap trio M.E.P. (Making Everything Possible) shouted into microphones as they pranced across the stage in front of the orchestra. "Come on! Ain't no party like a hip-hop party!"

The concert, in addition to one Saturday at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore, served as the world premiere of "Paint Factory," a hip-hop symphony composed, arranged and conducted by Atwater.

Atwater said he started "framing" his hip-hop symphony two years ago to highlight the positive side of hip-hop as an alternative to negative images presented in gangsta rap. Some of the songs span several genres within each piece, shifting from gospel to jazz and hip-hop and back.

"I wanted to recontextualize the genre and go back to the original context of hip-hop from back to the '80s with performers like Kurtis Blow and the Sugar Hill Gang," Atwater said. "That's when I decided to bring in the message of passion and playing on the theme of the colors."

Atwater started playing piano at age 4 as a member of the Third Street Church of God in the District. His first arrangement came at 11, when he wrote a rendition of the gospel standard "Blessed Assurance." He attended Morgan State University, studying with Nathan M. Carter, the legendary director of the university's well-respected choir. At Morgan, he also met gospel great Richard Smallwood, who took him on the road to play keyboards for his band at age 20.

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