By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun
7:26 AM EST, February 24, 2012
After a hiatus of more than a year, Soulful Symphony re-emerged last month to perform for a packed house at the Hippodrome Theatre, inaugurating a concert series that continues there Friday night.
Thanks to support from the recently launched Hippodrome Arts Fund, the ensemble of predominantly African-American and Latino musicians became the first resident ensemble at the Hippodrome, the flagship of the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center.
"It's a new chapter, a new home — but the same soul," said Darin Atwater, the composer, pianist and conductor who founded Soulful Symphony in 2000. For most of its first decade, the organization had an affiliation with the Baltimore Symphony and performed at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.
The Hippodrome relationship kicked off in January with a salute to Motown and Michael Jackson. Friday's program is devoted to a signature work of Soulful Symphony, "Evolution of a People," which premiered in 2006 and fits neatly into Black History Month.
In this ambitious, nearly two-hour piece, Atwater covers a lot of musical ground, stylistically, as he traces a story that begins in Africa and proceeds through American chapters of slavery, Civil War, civil rights and more.
Atwater drew inspiration from the great African-American artist Jacob Lawrence, who was known for his narrative series of paintings. The 10 movements in Atwater's composition form a sonic narrative of their own, with visual counterpoint — the projection of historic pictures and documents selected by noted photographer Ellis Marsalis III (brother of Wynton and Branford).
Even music-only presentations by Soulful Symphony are known for dynamic flourishes. Having the Hippodrome as a home base adds to the possibilities for theatrical enhancement.
"I've been working in collaboration with the technical director to get lighting and backdrops," Atwater said. "It will not be too elaborate, but it will have an immediate effect on our audience."
Although Soulful Symphony went dormant for a while, most of the ensemble's longtime instrumentalists and vocalists were still available for the new season, Atwater said. They come from the Baltimore area and beyond.
Atwater was born in Washington, where he was playing piano at age 4 and directing an ensemble of his own at 12. Although he started his college studies in accounting at Howard University, a meeting with Nathan Carter, the late, charismatic director of the Morgan State University Choir, led to Atwater changing schools and goals.
He studied piano at Morgan and composition at the Peabody. By the mid-1990s, Atwater's music was being performed by orchestras around the country.
When he founded the Soulful Symphony, bankrolling it himself initially, he said his desire was to add "to the cultural landscape of the nation from an African-American perspective."
Atwater has set an ambitious budget of about $800,000 for his first Hippodrome season. The lineup includes a gospel evening in March featuring choirs from around the area, and the premiere in June of a ballet, "Ghetto Safari," with a "very edgy, urban score" by the composer.
"We've got some aggressive fundraising to do," Atwater said.
If you go
Soulful Symphony performs "Evolution of a People" at 8 p.m. Friday at the Hippodrome, 12 N. Eutaw St. Tickets are $30 to $65 (plus applicable service fees). Available at the box office, or call 410-547-7328 or go to ticketmaster.com.
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