Baltimore's Soulful Symphony an antidote to classical's malaise

Posted: May 22, 2007

BALTIMORE - Not too far into Darin Atwater's Paint Factory, harp and chorus lay down a mood so quiet and elegiac it could be the setting of a Delius song.

Then three rappers known as M.E.P. come out on stage and do what rappers do. The harp continues, but now as a tantalizing underdog to the louder rap and percussion texture. A Kurt Weill-esque waltz takes over. Rappers leave. And we're delivered back to the quiet of chorus and harp.

Atwater, 36, has argued for American composers to embrace indigenous sounds in their work in a way they usually do not, and Paint Factory, premiered over the weekend in two concerts by Soulful Symphony, might be making up for lost time.

Atwater is a unifying vessel for a dozen or so discrete genres of music in the commercial and art realms. The piece opens in what could pass for stirring movie music. A female singer soars in a pop-music vein. One movement (of the 16) sounds Indian, the horns holding open fifths over an exotic oboe solo, before turning to a wise-guy, late-1950s jazz-band sound that could double for the soundtrack to Sweet Smell of Success.

The work - scored for chorus, vocal soloists, an orchestra augmented by saxes, drums and organ but devoid of clarinets and bassoons - is billed as a "hip-hop symphony." Paint Factory has only a little hip-hop and a little symphony, but it quotes just about everything else.

This concert, Saturday night in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, was Soulful Symphony's last of the season. The ensemble, founded in 2000, is presented by the Baltimore Symphony, but the musicians are not drawn from the orchestra. Assembled by Atwater, they are freelancers, mostly African American and on this night dressed down in jeans.

In a way, Soulful Symphony is a musical antidote to the malaise that has gripped classical music since about 1996, when orchestras starting losing recording contracts and began to realize that the days of cultural hegemony were done. The end to classical's crises of self-confidence might someday be traced to the Metropolitan Opera's broadcasts in movie theaters, and to an acknowledgment like the one the Baltimore Symphony has made that relevant repertoire is probably the single largest motivator in getting specific audiences to materialize.

What Paint Factory drew was a near-capacity, overwhelmingly black crowd to downtown Baltimore Saturday night. The audience was so moved by the music they were at one point literally dancing in the aisles. Listeners stood up during the concert and stretched their arms to the music, palms extended toward the stage to catch the spirit, the way you see in a Baptist church. Some timed the clasping of air in their hands to the end of a phrase or chord. Deeply engaged in the music, this audience.

The movements are mostly titled with colors ("Red - One Blood," "Brown - Equality") and carry texts with messages about God, race, abstinence, mourning, nostalgia. Atwater - who also conducted the concert - is a superb orchestrator, deploying an oboe solo in the noble role of sincerity, or a French horn section in hot pursuit of cool. He uses organ all over the place, its connotations morphing in a fascinating way from '60s pop to church and back again.

He is a smart curator of sounds, and of talent. Singers Cynthia Renée and Shaun Mykals were wonderfully charismatic, and rapper-trumpeter Dontae Winslow managed to be both swaggering and winsome.

Atwater also has a great sense of emotional timing. Singing at the piano in "Blue - Optimism," his words are so sincere it hurts. (Daddy's gone and Momma's all alone/ Babies cryin' cause there's no one at home/ And like a ship without a sail I got the blues). It's borderline corny, the chord progression a little too simple-sounding.

Until the end, when, in a sudden and economical harmonic turn, he blued up the piano part, and the monotony of the previous few minutes paid off in an extremely moving moment. Atwater no doubt could hear the sound of success. The audience intoned a quiet, wordless, approving vocalization.


Contact music critic Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or pdobrin@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/peterdobrin.

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