Darin Atwater sat down at a piano backstage at Merriweather Post Pavilion on Monday morning and performed an original piece, “First Note,” which he had composed over the weekend.
The piece was to symbolize how Atwater’s orchestra, Soulful Symphony, which he founded in 2000, is moving into its new home at Merriweather, located in the heart of Columbia.
Atwater was joined by Ian Kennedy, director of the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission, and County Executive Calvin Ball at a press conference Monday to officially announce the symphony’s residency. Atwater is the artistic director of the commission.
“We are here to make a human statement,” Atwater said. “We are here to combine our human assets to create a hub where our patrons can enjoy variety of programming. Programming that bridges the gap that exists between higher art and pop culture … [and] programming that reflects the community that we serve.”
Soulful Symphony, based in Baltimore, will kick off its residency during Merriweather’s summer season. In the residency agreement, the symphony will, at minimum, have three performances a year.
However, Merriweather is not sharing when those performances will be just yet, Kennedy said.
Additionally, new pieces by Atwater will premiere and be commissioned at the amphitheater.
The symphony also will have a role in community engagement, partnering with the county school system and an initiative with the Jessup Correctional Institution.
While the National Symphony Orchestra and the Baltimore Symphony have had summer stints at Merriweather, the amphitheater will be Soulful Symphony’s home base.
What makes Soulful a resident symphony is that National and Baltimore had other home bases when the orchestras performed at Merriweather and Soulful will have original programming, according to Beth Levine, a partner for KO Public Affairs.
The ensemble is made up of 85 musicians and vocalists, predominantly performers of African-American and Hispanic descent who are between the ages of 26 and 55.
Atwater compares his orchestra’s performances to a jazz club or church venue, where the musicians interact with the audience. The performances stray away from the traditional European orchestra, featuring blends of American pop, gospel music, soul, hip-hop, jazz, bluegrass and more.
Sometimes, the orchestra has a DJ join the performance or infuses electronic music into a piece, he said.
When a performance ends and the audience begins to leave, Atwater said, they leave “richer” because they have experienced their culture in a different way.
The orchestra has had residencies at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and the Hippodrome Theatre, the flagship of the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center.
In Ball’s remarks, he asked a series of rhetorical questions: “What good is saving the world without art? Without culture? Without making it a place that is worthwhile for future generations?
“When I think about coming to Howard County, coming to Columbia, and wanting to raise our family here, I think about a place that not only exists where everyone can have opportunity … but I think about a place where each and every one of us can add our voices to the harmony, to the beautiful tapestry of a cloak that will not be seen around the state but around the world,” Ball said.
Kennedy said having a resident symphony at Merriweather has always been part of the commission’s mission. The commission assumed ownership of the amphitheater in 2016.
Atwater and Kennedy said they had discussed the mission for the past year, and it brought them to where they are today.
“We needed the artistic expertise to fulfill the vision of this place,” Kennedy said.
The resident symphony has been “a long time coming,” as it was something Jim Rouse, the founder of Columbia, had envisioned for Merriweather, Kennedy sad.
“We are working to realize this vision in ways that are dynamic and forward looking. That are inclusive and integrated and celebrate the best of our community, our country and culture,” Kennedy said.
While Merriweather will still host the big names in popular music, “it will now also be home for a world-class, 21st-century orchestra,” Kennedy said.