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Merriweather's new resident orchestra is changing the face of classical music

Merriweather's new resident orchestra is changing the face of classical music
Violinist Jessica McJunkins and timpanist Donnie Johns perform with Soulful Symphony, an orchestra of primarily black and latino musicians that will soon take up residency at Merriweather Post Pavilion. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

When violinist Jessica McJunkins looks out into the audience during performances of the Soulful Symphony, she can’t help but brim with joy.

When she was growing up, she rarely saw people who looked like her playing string instruments — and nothing to the extent of Soulful Symphony, which is composed of mostly black and latino musicians.

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“You are aware that seeing people that look like you is powerful,” says McJunkins, a 32-year-old soloing member of Beyonce’s band who also performs with the group, which will embark on a three-year residency at Columbia’s Merriweather Post Pavilion in June. Tickets for the season went on sale May 20.

She remembers being an 11-year-old aspiring violinist in Charlotte, N.C., and seeing Regina Carter, a black jazz violinist, for the first time.

“I was mind-blown. And I worked twice as hard after that because I could see it was possible. She was young and just edgy and just us. There was something there that I recognized,” recalls McJunkins, who has been with Soulful Symphony since 2014.

Soulful Symphony’s founder, 48-year-old Darin Atwater, calls the orchestra’s residency at the pavilion the “bookend to the fulfillment of the vision of Rouse.”

Columbia developer James Rouse, known as a proponent of racial diversity, originally envisioned Merriweather Post Pavilion as the permanent summer home of the National Symphony Orchestra. But the orchestra played only two seasons — 1967 an 1968 — at the venue.

And Atwater doesn’t take his new responsibility lightly. He knows the power that his group harnesses.

“The optics of the symphony have been important,” says Atwater, a Morgan State University and Peabody Institute graduate who was encouraged to play music from a young age. “In Soulful Symphony, not only does [an audience member] he see a person of color, but he also sees a violin when we’re playing hip hop music or Motown. It opens up the possibilities of what is possible for that instrument in that space. It’s redefining the space as well.”

Performances by Soulful Symphony differ from more traditional classical orchestras because they veer away from solely focusing on European composers and styles while embracing more contemporary artists and styles, explains Atwater, the symphony’s artistic director and conductor.

“We have musicians who have been conservatory trained. And we have musicians who are in more of the vernacular roots tradition where they play more improvisational. We kind of juxtaposed both positions,” he says. “Our musicians have to have the flexibility to play everything from classic repertoire to jazz, gospel, blues, where it’s off the page. And that’s not so easy to find. That includes vocals as well.”

Soulful Symphony, which has been in existence since 2000, creates many teachable moments for everyone from its 85 members to the audience.

McJunkins says the work culture of Soulful Symphony is unlike anything else she’s ever experienced—particularly backstage before performances.

“There were cultural similarities that I have never experienced,” she recalls. “For instance, getting ready for the show backstage, I met women [musicians] who could listen to Brahms, but we could listen to Beyonce without having to explain who she was. It felt very much like family.”

Although Atwater says that it was never his intention, the Soulful Symphony has become a refuge for musicians like McJunkins who longed for a greater sense of community that she missed in other music groups where there is a dearth of ethnic diversity.

“I wasn’t really introduced to that network [of string players of color] until Soulful. Before Soulful, I didn’t feel like I had a real community of sorts, which is crucial anywhere, but especially in New York,” McJunkins says.

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Don Johns, who has played percussion for the symphony since 2005, loves the variety and freedom that Soulful Symphony provides him.

“I’m someone who plays in a variety of orchestras. [Soulful Symphony] is definitely empowering and more of a family atmosphere,” Johns, 35, says. “Soulful has more relevance and resonances with what I want to perform. They’re all phenomenal talents. It comes across with the performance.”

Even Soulful Symphony’s approach to attire differs drastically from more traditional symphonies, which Johns appreciates. He recalls a performance in 2007 entitled “Paint Factory” where the group homed in on hip-hop. That concert, symphony members wore jeans, dress shirts, blazers, sneakers or Timberland boots.

“Generally you wear a tuxedo or a long black suit,” he explains. “What Soulful does incredibly well is it represents all American culture. It debunks and demystifies hierarchies. There can be a curmudgeon culture that we do not have in Soulful.”

Atwater said it was happenstance that led to the creation of Soulful Symphony.

“Twenty years ago I called my best friends — many of which were African Americans — and started an orchestra. It kind of has become a life unto itself,” he says. “The whole diversification of classical music? That’s not really what we are about. So I don’t see it as a safe space for classical musicians to come and experience classical music. Because that’s not what is going on.”

Instead, Atwater wants to change the way that American music is viewed.

“Traditional symphonies, the lion’s share of their repertoire — 99 percent of what they play — comes from the European canon,” Atwater says, adding that this country has been “wildly American” about everything else, from technology to sports to cuisine. He wants music to be treated the same way. “Soulful Symphony plays American roots music, American vernacular music. So we do everything from spiritual, gospel, jazz. We’ve done blues, hip-hop and that is the music that has been birthed from our soil. We have this great treasure of music that has been birthed from this tension of collisions of cultures.”

Atwater sees similarities between what Soulful Symphony is doing and what Alvin Ailey has accomplished in exploring American roots music through dance.

“Of course there is a space for African Americans who are not able to penetrate the ballet and the classical arts world. It becomes almost a subculture. You are forced to start something...” he says.

Atwater calls these groups “fundamentally American,” rather than a reaction to classical art. “Non-Americans never ask me about the race or reasoning of the ensemble.”

Regardless of the intention of the group, the end result is magic, according to fan Caprece Jackson Garrett.

Jackson Garrett, a Baltimore-based culture historian loves the group so much, that she organized — with the former head of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, Wanda Draper — “The Souls of Black Folk” concert, a performance before 1,500 people at Morgan State University.

"It's also a very unique and distinctive take on the classic symphony experience," Jackson Garrett says. "It's rooted in the African American tradition, but it's a cultural experience that everyone can enjoy. There's only one Soulful Symphony in the world, and we have it right here."

Merriweather Post Pavilion announced Soulful Symphony, a Baltimore based orchestra, as its first resident symphony on March 11. Darin Atwater, the symphony's founder, played an original piece “First Note” to commemorate the announcement.
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