Alliance aims to draw more blacks to BSO

Soulful Symphony, composer on board

May 21, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

In a move to forge new bonds with the African-American community, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra announced yesterday a partnership with the Soulful Symphony and its founder, Darin Atwater, who was named the BSO's new composer-in-residence.

BSO president-elect James Glicker said the "history-making event" will open the doors of Meyerhoff Symphony Hall "to those who have felt left out."

Founded in 2000, the Soulful Symphony has a core of 65 African-American musicians, drawn from the Baltimore/Washington area, as well as New York and Philadelphia. "They're very accomplished players," Atwater said. "They're graduates of [New York's] Juilliard School and Mannes College of Music, as well as Peabody and Catholic University. It's a strong musical base. We also have a chorus of 20 to 30 singers."

The ensemble will perform five concerts annually, starting with the 2004/2005 season. Some of the events will be performed side-by-side with BSO musicians. Several Atwater compositions, including a vibrant work from 2000 called Song in a Strange Land, a contemporary synthesis of traditional spirituals, will be featured during the inaugural season. Pieces by African-American composers Billy Childs and Richard Smallwood also are slated.

As composer-in-residence, Atwater will write two new works a year, some to be performed at joint Soulful Symphony/BSO concerts, some by the BSO alone. Atwater, who praised BSO officials "for the courage it takes to diversify," described his approach to composition as "taking the music of the people and putting it in a symphonic style." The BSO has not had a composer-in-residence since 2000, when Christopher Rouse's tenure in that post ended.

The budget for the Soulful Symphony's initial three years is about $900,000. To meet those costs, the Sylvia and Eddie Brown Family Foundation has issued a $300,000 challenge grant. It must be matched, 2-to-1, by contributions over a three-year period.

BSO board chairman Philip English "first asked us for $900,000, and I said no," Eddie Brown said. "But because we've known Darin Atwater for a long time, and because we've had an interest in diversifying audiences of the cultural institutions in Baltimore, we wanted to help. We agreed to do a third."

The challenge grant specifies how half of the $600,000 match must be raised. "Phil told us there was great enthusiasm on the board for [the Soulful Symphony]," Brown said, "so we're asking the board to step forward with $200,000. And we want the African-American community to buy into this, too, so $100,000 must be realized specifically from the African-American community. That still leaves a gap, so the total Baltimore community has to buy into it, too."

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