It's been awhile since Soulful Symphony Founder/Conductor Darin Atwater took the podium at the Meyerhoff. That's because after nearly a decade leading the groud-breaking orchestra, Atwater took a much-needed hiatus last season. "To be brutally honest," says Atwater, "everything imaginable falls on my shoulders, and it just consumed me personally. So I took some time off to refocus and find a sense of equilibrium."
Atwater was composer-in-residence with the BSO from 2004-2007, and attendance at Soulful's shows at the Meyerhoff and Strathmore has always been impressive. Atwater—who returns to the podium for Soulful's Tenth Anniversary Concert at the Meyerhoff Saturday night—has a rare gift for drawing diverse crowds to the symphony. "It's all about shaping the music to touch people," he explains. "Classical music has become so esoteric and academic, but I try to tailor music to speak to people. That's why I focus so much on American vernacular music—like rock and roll and hip-hop—because I want our audience to hear their native tongue and connect to what we play. As a result, we're totally American with our sound."
He also strives to make his audience feel at home. "I like to talk to the audience and demystify what this all means," says Atwater. "Classical music has a lot of tradition and entrenched etiquette, and I'm trying to break through some of that, so people will feel welcome and at ease. I try to create more of a dialogue, or a call-and-response. It's more like the tradition of the jazz club, or popular music, or the church. If you want to clap and wave your hands, go ahead and do it."
Atwater lauds Marin Alsop for taking a similar approach with the BSO and "pushing the envelope," but he acknowledges that "there's a long way to go, because it's like turning a big ship."
Looking back over the past decade, he cites a number of highlights: the performance of Evolution of a People, which included projections of photos by Ellis Marsalis III; 2009's Paint Factory, his hip-hop inspired composition; and Stranger in a Strange Land, the first piece written for Soulful, the piece, he says, that "got it all started."
Saturday night's program will basically be a "Best of Soulful Symphony," with excerpts from Atwater's evening-length pieces mixed with gospel favorites and a few Motown tunes—including Stevie Wonder's "Superstition."
"We'll be putting a bow-tie on the last ten years," says Atwater. "We're going to celebrate what we've accomplished, because it's more than just an orchestra. Soulful is a social mission in this city, and the people of Baltimore have taken ownership of it."
The concert starts at 7:30 pm.
Next week, I'll post some info about an incredibly ambitious project Atwater hopes to undertake.
[photo: Michael Stewart]