The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's 19th-annual tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was unlike any of the others. Sitting side-by-side with BSO players Wednesday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall were lots of black musicians. That constituted quite a tribute to King in itself.
Joining the BSO was the Soulful Symphony, the remarkable ensemble founded and conducted by Darin Atwater and now affiliated with the orchestra. A packed house turned out for the occasion - all events involving the Soulful Symphony this season have had the box office hopping happily - and was rewarded with a secular and religious mix of programming.
Things didn't really heat up until after intermission, when Atwater led the combined instrumentalists and the Soulful Symphony choir in three pieces based on biblical verses.
His arrangement of Duke Ellington's Psalm 23 proved very effective. The text is sung by women in straightforward melodic lines against richly shifting harmonies; the mention of "the valley of the shadow of death," unleashes quite a drama.
There were two more psalms, these composed by Atwater. He poured a lot of stylistic traits into Psalm 148 (a bit of fugue, folk song and Broadway crescendo), which limited the distinctiveness of the music but made its own emotional points.
His staccato-punctuated Psalm 136 proved potent. At the center is a vocal solo - a powerhouse effort by Mishael Miller - that is a kind of jazz improv without melodic notes.
Atwater drew passionate sounds from singers and orchestra alike in these mostly tidy performances. This was also the case in Look Beyond, a movement from All Rise, a brilliant large-scale work by Wynton Marsalis, but the conductor let the tension sag at the end.
Likewise, in the first half, when he led a smaller jazz group in Ellington's vivid tone poem Black, Brown and Beige, Atwater tended to lose steam.
The playing, however, again involving Soulful and BSO personnel, was often hot. Riffs by Thomas Williams stood out in a sax section that articulated Ellington's tightly meshed grooves with smoothness and sensuality.
A recent work by Atwater was also featured - Day of Affirmation, part of a multi-composer project recently premiered by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. The work calls for a speaker to deliver Robert F. Kennedy's eloquent civil rights address given in 1966 in South Africa, while a jazz band provides continual counterpoint. Lenneal Henderson, vice chair of Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture, read the text.
Although I like Atwater's idea of having the band musicians do some reciting before they play, the subsequent mix of spoken and musical sounds doesn't quite mesh - or at least it didn't here. But lots of interesting ideas were going on in the score, reflecting Atwater's uncommon ear for instrumental coloring and the urban beat.