Darin Atwater's Soulful Symphony Orchestra The young composer is redefining the Eurocentric symphonic tradition, blending gospel, jazz and hip-hop into his compositions and performing them with his own African-American orchestra.
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Darin Atwater's Soulful Symphony Orchestra

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Darin Atwater's Soulful Symphony Orchestra

Darin Atwater's Soulful Symphony Orchestra

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LIANE HANSEN, Host:

Darin Atwater is a different voice in the world of classical music. The 38- year-old composer and conductor combines strands of gospel, jazz, rhythm and blues and even hip-hop in his orchestral music. He performs it with his all African-American ensemble, the Soulful Symphony. In the process, Atwater is redefining what has been a quintessentially European art form - the symphony orchestra. Brigid McCarthy reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRIGID MCCARTHY: Practically everything about a Darin Atwater concert stands in contrast to a standard symphony - the musicians on stage, the people sitting in the audience and most of all, the sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCCARTHY: Atwater doesn't have the pedigree of a conventional orchestral composer, either. He studied composition at Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory, but left after a year. Actually, he was encouraged to leave by the composer John Corigliano.

DARIN ATWATER: He said, man, this is not the right place for you. You have such a defined sound that I'm afraid that this is going to kind of box you in.

MCCARTHY: Atwater is grateful for that advice. What he was doing, almost without realizing it, was writing orchestral versions of African-American spirituals, gospel and jazz. He says it was a little bit like what Alvin Ailey was doing with dance, or the artist Romare Beardon with his collages and photo montages. They were bringing African-American folk art into America's finest concert halls and museums. In fact, it was while studying Beardon's art that he finally understood what kind of music he wanted to write.

ATWATER: I mean, he was layering African-American experience on top of cubism and on top of all these different forms. And that's exactly what I was trying to get to. I'm almost layering like a musical collage.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCCARTHY: The first piece he composed after that revelation was "Song in a Strange Land." Atwater says it was a creative breakthrough for him.

ATWATER: Everything coalesced with that piece. I wanted to find a framework where I could elevate American vernacular music and of course it all started with the spiritual. For me, I said, let's start with that and kind of weave together all the different musical products that have stemmed from the spiritual.

MCCARTHY: But the piece begins with music that came before the spiritual.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMS)

ATWATER: Entompine(ph) is called talking drums. Of course, that's the heartbeat of all African music and all derivatives from African music.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMS)

MCCARTHY: Atwater says the first generations of African slaves brought drums and used them to communicate with each other.

ATWATER: And many times caused insurrections on plantations.

MCCARTHY: So slave owners confiscated their instruments. But there were some exceptions, including New Orleans.

ATWATER: The only place that slaves were able to really use drums and instruments was Congo Square.

MCCARTHY: That was the historic meeting ground near the French quarter where West African slaves were allowed to play music together in public. And it became one of the places where African rhythms got a foothold in the United States. But African-Americans still found ways to express themselves in places where they were deprived of their instruments.

ATWATER: Any time you hear Negro spirituals, you hear with them without any instrumentation. There's a real strong vocal component. You don't have as much rhythmic freedom in gospel, as you do with jazz and their cousins. So what I wanted to do was reintroduce the spiritual with that vocal component, along with all of these other rhythmic possibilities that kind of went off into the secular trajectory with jazz.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCCARTHY: Darin Atwater says he created the Soulful Symphony, a 75-member orchestra with vocalists, to perform this music

ATWATER: Then when I got almost through writing the piece, I said, oh, it would be great to have all African-Americans on stage for this premiere performance of this piece. The spirituals, African-Americans, we're paying homage to our ancestors, we have instruments.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCCARTHY: And five years ago, Atwater and his Soulful Symphony caught the attention of executives at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, who were looking for ways to connect with the city's African-American community. Atwater and the BSO formed an artistic partnership that's been hugely successful. When the Soulful Symphony has performed at the BSO's concert halls in Baltimore and near Washington D.C., it's routinely sold out the house. Jazz musician Wynton Marsalis thinks he knows why. He first met Darin Atwater about 10 years ago.

WYNTON MARSALIS: I came down to play some of his music and it was unbelievable to me. He had a whole symphonic orchestra playing with great orchestration, so many different grooves. And he was combining a lot of different styles of music that are very difficult to bring together with a degree of craftsmanship and seriousness. And he has a good basketball game, too.

MCCARTHY: Darin Atwater grew up outside of Washington D.C. His father worked at IBM, and his mother was a teacher.

ATWATER: Both my parents sang in the church choir, so music was a large part of our focus and our faith.

MCCARTHY: He started playing piano when he was four years old, learning on his grandmother's upright Wurlitzer. He's largely self-taught and thinks if he had had more of a classical music training, he'd probably now be a concert pianist or conventional orchestra conductor. His mother often took him to the National Symphony Orchestra and gave him a broad view of music.

ATWATER: Because she immersed us in so many different musical milieus, it kind of has morphed into the way I conceive music, you know, everything from taking me to hear the NSO to Ella Fitzgerald, to church, to, I mean, whatever you can name musically.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCCARTHY: Darin Atwater still seeks out all kinds of music. He loves rap and hip-hop, but he doesn't always like the message. So he wrote his own hip-hop composition for the Soulful Symphony. It's called "Paint Factory." He chose the Baltimore hip-hop group MEP to perform "Paint Factory."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAINT FACTORY")

MEP: (Singing) What were born for? What will you die for? What is your passion?

ATWATER: It's important that we offer a counterstatement to what's going on in popular music. Like the worst part of us is the thing that we celebrate. So I wanted to take the qualities of hip-hop and the form of it and show how it could be elevated again.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCCARTHY: Unidentified Group: (Singing) Passion, passion, passion, passion, passion, passion, passion, passion, passion, passion.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HANSEN: You can see a video of Darin Atwater conducting his Soulful Symphony at nprmusic.org.

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