Merriweather Post resident orchestra promises ‘democratization of the arts’

When the renovated Merriweather Post Pavilion, in Columbia, Maryland, opens its doors in May, it will feature a resident orchestra like no other.

Soulful Symphony attempts to bridge the gap between high art and accessibility.

“The misnomer is that classical music is high, sacred art. Four hundred years ago, all of Mozart’s symphonies were Austrian folk songs. That was their pop music,” Soulful Symphony Director Darin Atwater said, explaining the same was true of Verdi and Tchaikovsky.

“That music is not really classical; it was ballroom dances … music baked into their soil,” Atwater said. “So, the idea is to come here and do the same with our soil. To take that music and elevate it to high art.”

The Soulful Symphony orchestra, which is diverse and predominantly African-American, has created productions based on hip-hop, gospel, classical, jazz and bluegrass.

“We’ve had this struggle with [the question of] how do we begin to take the treasure of our Americana and create a great symphonic repertoire,” said Atwater, who was born and raised in D.C. and has extended family with roots in Columbia. He’s delighted now to have the opportunity of a home space from which to work on that goal.

For 20 years, Soulful Symphony has shared music venues with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Meyerhoff and Strathmore.

During comments at Monday’s announcement, both Atwater and Howard County Executive Calvin B. Ball III reveled at the opportunity for the pavilion to be part of what they called the “democratization of the arts.”

“Today not only offers an opportunity to unify as a community, but to create more access to the arts,” Ball said. “There was a time when the arts were only accessible to those who had a great deal of money or power. Soulful Symphony is a message to everyone in the world: ‘Come here, enjoy the arts and make it so life is even more worth living.'”

Soulful Symphony will have at least three performances a year at Merriweather; the schedule is expected to be announced shortly. Atwater is promising programming that relates to the American experience.

“You’re going to leave here richer, because you have experienced your culture in a symphonic setting,” he said.

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