"That's the hard part right now," says Darin Atwater, composer and pianist. "I find myself in a place where I'm composing a lot differently."
Atwater, 27, who is featured as composer and piano soloist on the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's annual "Live, Gifted and Black" free concert wrote the piano concerto he'll be playing as a throwback to the romantic era.
It's based on the spirituals "I Want Jesus to Walk Wid Me" and "Steal Away," and the piano part sounds as though Rachmaninoff were improvising over these familiar songs.
"In the 19th century, we're missing," Atwater says of black American composers. "Then a composer like [Antonin] Dvorak comes along and says: 'Look to your music.' " It was a famous wake-up call to black composers.
Atwater's piano concerto "fills in the gap" of those unwritten works. And it uses black religious music for its themes because "the emotionalism of romantic music relates to the emotionalism of the spirituals," the composer says.
Atwater's "Fanfare," the orchestral work that begins the program, jumps forward about 50 years in time, with its martial rhythm and jazzy, angular brass counterpoint to the horn choir's playing of "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?"
Recently, Atwater has been working with trumpeter and jazz composer Wynton Marsalis and his next work will be taking an even bigger step: a gospel oratorio called "Song in a Strange Land," The work, commissioned by the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, is scheduled for a fall premiere.
A church musician since the age of 4, Atwater credits his parents for awakening his gifts. His father, a retired IBM employee, is a minister in his local church in Durham, N.C. His mother, who taught high school English, played the piano and sang.
All the siblings are musical. An older brother plays drums; Darin started out on the trumpet. His sister Stephanie was a violinist in the city youth orchestra of Washington, where the children grew up; and his sister Stacy, who teaches first grade at St. John's Elementary School in Ellicott City, is a Morgan State University graduate who won a gold medal in the Rosa Ponselle vocal competition.
Atwater went to Morgan State for three years (1988-1991) and accompanied the acclaimed choir directed by Nathan Carter. His arrangement of a hymn for that choir caused the band director to suggest that Atwater think about composing his own music.
Then he dropped out to become accompanist for the Richard Smallwood Singers, a gospel ensemble. After several seasons of touring, he spent a year in the Peabody Conservatory of Music's professional studies program, working with composer Morris Cotel.
"You're a harmonist!" Cotel told him at once. He suggested that Atwater devote himself to the basics of classical composition, rather than learning Cotel's own ethereally dissonant style. The rest of his education has come from the old-fashioned study of scores, just as composers did in the centuries before music became an academic discipline.
Atwater, who lives in Laurel, now works as minister of music at Long Reach Church of God, a non-denominational Christian church in Columbia.
The concert includes a string serenade, "Minor Reflection," written for the St. Louis Symphony by Katherine Gladney Wells; and Mendelssohn's violin concerto played by Tai Murray, 16, from Chicago.
'Live, Gifted and Black'
What: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, with Darin Atwater, piano, and Tai Murray, violin
When: 7: 30 tonight
Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.
Admission: Free, but tickets are required for seating
Pub Date: 5/26/98