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The Soulful Symphony reinvents itself, elevating music’s American roots

Conductor and composer Darin Atwater leads the Soulful Symphony, and will perform at the Merriweather Post Pavilion this summer. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
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Darin Atwater is a diminutive man with an outsize footprint. He’s a composer putting the final touches­ on his latest evening-length work. He’s a conductor with a national profile and the ability to deeply inspire musicians. And he’s an administrator who founded his own orchestra, the Soulful Symphony, and has led it through ups and downs, stops and starts, over 19 years, to relaunch it this summer in a new home: Merriweather Post Pavilion.

The Soulful Symphony is a different kind of orchestra. It’s made up of musicians of color, and it plays a cross-section of American music: arrangements of jazz and hip-hop and R&B and gospel and country and any other form that comes into Atwater’s mind. His own works draw heavily on these American vernaculars — hardly a new concept, he points out, in classical music. For example, “the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony is all Russian peasant folk music,” he offers. The orchestra also plays arrangements of this music and new works by other composers of color. It has violins. It has saxophones. It has a chorus.

“The forces for each piece are determined by what is called for by the music,” says Robin Fay Massie, a violinist who has played with the symphony since 2006.

Atwater has grasped what many orchestras, struggling with the elusive concept of diversity, have failed to fully process: Orchestral diversification is not just a question of who plays the music, but also one of what they play and how they play it.

If you’re a classical music fan who thinks the Soulful Symphony is a pops concert, or not for you, that’s okay. Atwater already knows you feel that way.

“Orchestras have to cultivate the audience, too,” he says. “If they’re programming what I just did, ‘South Side: Symphonic Dances’ ” — a piece Atwater wrote for the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2018 as a companion to the symphonic dances from Bernstein’s “West Side Story” — “if they don’t cultivate the audience, it’s not going to match. ‘South Side’ comes out of hip-hop, out of rap. It’s not going to speak directly to [a classical] audience.”

Yet Peter Dobrin, the classical music critic of the Philadelphia Inquirer, might beg to differ. He called the piece “gorgeous” after its premiere at the Mann Center last summer, writing, “While the movements’ titles nudge listeners toward concrete references — ‘The Gentrification of Trap,’ ‘Hood Jig’ — the major part of the experience is in the joy of Atwater letting your imagination do its own investigation into the meanings of sound.”

Atwater, 48, is a D.C. native. He began playing the piano at 4, had founded his own ensemble by 12 and made his National Symphony Orchestra debut in 1995 playing his own piano concerto for outreach programs. Though he studied piano at Morgan State University, one of Baltimore’s historically black colleges and universities, he was held to the straight classical curriculum. “Even at an HBCU,” Atwater says wryly, “if you were caught in the practice room playing jazz, your professor went nuts.”

But Morgan State didn’t have a composition program, and especially after his NSO debut, Atwater thought he should get more formal training in composing. He enrolled in the Peabody’s professional division, where in his first semester he took a master class with John Corigliano. At the break, Corigliano pulled him aside. “You have this Gershwin/Duke Ellington/Quincy Jones thing happening,” Atwater recalls him saying. “You may become suffocated here. I would hate to have that happen to you, because of your sound.”

Atwater drew from that comment the courage to strike out on his own and began a piece based on spirituals, “Song in a Strange Land,” that would become the seed of the Soulful Symphony. Soon after, he met jazz trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis, who immediately took an interest in him. (“Hey, man, you’re composing for orchestra,” he says Marsalis told him. “There’s about three of us in the world.”) Marsalis brought him to New York and introduced him to Albert Murray, a co-founder with Marsalis of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Atwater says Murray’s concept of “building an institution in partnership with an individual” — like Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center, or Alvin Ailey and his dance company — influenced him to establish the Soulful Symphony three years later.

From the start, the orchestra has inspired considerable enthusiasm. “A feeling of boundless joy and energy,” critic Joan Reinthaler wrote of a 2007 performance at Strathmore, during the 10 years the orchestra was affiliated with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, with Atwater as a BSO composer in residence. The orchestra then took a hiatus and regrouped at Baltimore’s Hippodrome in 2011. It became familiar through a telecast on PBS; it performed at the groundbreaking of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Yet even though a good 25 percent of its players — drawn from all realms of the musical spectrum, from top classical artists to musicians who have toured with Beyoncé — have been with Atwater since the beginning, the orchestra has seen at least two longish hiatuses and was still, until this year, on the lookout for a permanent home.

Now there’s hope for that with the new partnership with Merriweather Post Pavilion, where the Soulful Symphony will offer three concerts this summer. The pavilion, designed in 1967 by Frank Gehry, is a showpiece of Columbia, Md., a planned community founded in the 1960s with elimination of race and class divisions as one of its goals. This makes it well-suited for the Soulful Symphony, which represents an alternative and also idealistic vision for an orchestra. The pavilion also offers what Atwater calls a “bidirectional” experience: Patrons are free to move around or to respond to what’s happening onstage.

This fits well with the orchestra’s definition of a concert.

“For the artists as well as the audience, Soulful Symphony concerts are not a performance; rather, they are an experience,” Massie, the violinist, says in an email. “Just as you may expect to see a church congregation of passionate believers dancing, clapping, shouting and engaging in active worship, so goes a ‘typical’ Soulful Symphony concert.”

Does the Soulful Symphony offer a possible template for other orchestras, as well as a repository of scores other orchestras might play if they are as committed as they say they are to being more diverse? It’s not clear. One of the main reasons it works so well is Atwater’s charisma.

“I would follow him anywhere,” says Don Johns, the orchestra’s lead percussionist, who has played under Atwater since 2005. “I think aspects of it could be replicated, but I think there’s a special artistry Darin brings to it.”

As for integrating the field, Atwater says that “we have a long way to go.” And cultivating the audience works both ways.

“If tomorrow, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra were to integrate with all people of color, they still would have a problem with audience development,” he says. “The black community wouldn’t come to see Mozart if we did it with all black musicians.”

It’s an interesting hypothesis. One hopes that someday the Soulful Symphony might even test it out.

The Soulful Symphony’s first concert of its Merriweather Post residency, #SoulfulSetlist, is June 29.

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