A Soulful Connection

Violinist John Littlejohn relishes his role in African-American group

Music

October 02, 2005|By TIM SMITH | TIM SMITH,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

John Littlejohn fits right into the Soulful Symphony.

This ensemble of African-American instrumentalists and vocalists, founded in 2000 by conductor / composer / arranger Darin Atwater, seeks to broaden traditional boundaries of an orchestra and classical music. Littlejohn, who has played in the violin section from the beginning, couldn't be much more boundary-free himself.

Under the name Adidam, which stands for "All Day I Dream About Music," he recently produced a self-titled CD, featuring his own songs, several with tightly rhymed lyrics celebrating his religious faith. Littlejohn arranged and mixed the album, as well as performed the vocals and all of the string parts. His distinctive brand of hip-hip reflects influences of classical, gospel, jazz, Latin and even Asian music.

That sort of eclecticism also characterizes the Soulful Symphony, which was one of the attributes that first attracted Littlejohn. The symphony starts its second season Oct. 29.

"I liked the fact that there was a lot of new music in the programming, music that uses different idioms," Littlejohn says. "And it's a real creative process onstage. Sometimes Darin will finish writing a piece on the day of the performance. So we might not always play as tightly as we could, but that almost makes it more real."

Littlejohn, 26, was born in a low-income neighborhood in Lansing, Mich. "No one in my family was into classical music," he says. "I went into it with virgin ears ... and I connected with it right away. Classical music is amazing. I want to see it kept alive."

Littlejohn gravitated to the violin at 10 and, initially, learned the rudiments of the instrument by playing along with recordings, "one note at a time. So I developed technical problems early on that took years to work out," he says.

The violinist started private lessons at 16 and went on to receive an undergraduate degree in music from the University of Michigan. In 2000, he moved to Baltimore, where he earned his master's degree and graduate performance diploma at the Peabody Conservatory, studying with former BSO concertmaster Herbert Greenberg. ("He has been a huge help to me," Littlejohn says.)

In addition to his work with the Soulful Symphony, Littlejohn is concertmaster of the Newark Symphony in Delaware and a member of the Baltimore Opera Orchestra. And he recently joined a chamber-music group of African-American string players called the Young Eight, an octet that has been building a national reputation through tours, seminars and outreach programs since its founding in 2002.

In Baltimore, which he still calls home, Littlejohn is deeply involved in music offstage as well. "I teach underprivileged children in the Sandtown neighborhood," he says. "I'm trying to give them the same kind of education the kids at the Peabody Preparatory are getting."

Last season, the Soulful Symphony had its first full season as part of a new partnership with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Although the BSO has had trouble filling seats for many of its concerts at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, the Soulful Symphony played to full houses there at each of its classical / gospel / jazz fusion programs.

"The people are completely connected to what's going on," Littlejohn says. "It's exciting to play to an audience that's so alive. And they're not constrained by high-society rules. They'll clap in the middle of a piece if someone hits a nice note, or maybe they'll get up and dance if they like something."

Not the sort of reaction a typical orchestra expects.

"We're all trained classically," Littlejohn says of his colleagues in the Soulful Symphony, "and we're used to all the rules that go with it. The first thought you have when you see our audience is, 'They've got to settle down.' But the second thought is, 'This is great.' It really gives you a drive."

The orchestra clearly strikes a deep chord with Littlejohn.

"I think the Soulful Symphony is a great move in the right direction," the violinist says. "We're reconnecting with the Baltimore community and bringing a new audience to the Meyerhoff.

"In the end, everything we do is rooted in a love of music, a love for the art. That's what draws people."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

SOULFUL SYMPHONY

WHERE

The Joseph Meyerhoff

Symphony Hall,

1212 Cathedral St.

PERFORMANCES

Song in a Strange Land

Saturday, Oct. 29, at 8 p.m.

The 2005-2006 season opens with a signature piece by Darin Atwater. The evening will draw from the diverse musical traditions of blues, jazz, gospel, African clave, reggae and bluegrass, and offer a true exploration of America's folk music: the spiritual.

Soulful Celebration

Friday, Dec. 9, at 8 p.m.

Celebrate the holiday season with a souful take on two classics: Duke Ellington's unique interpretation of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite and Quincy Jones' gospel rendition of Handel's Messiah.

Evolution of a People

Tuesday, Jan. 17, at 8 p.m.

The 20th Annual State of Maryland Tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the premiere of Darin Atwater's latest work, Evolution of a People, a 10-part musical and photographic journey through the history of African-Americans.

Southern Folk Sketches

Saturday, April 29, at 8 p.m.

This program opens with the world premiere of Darin Atwater's Southern Folk Sketches, followed by the First Symphony of William Grant Still, which shows the influences of blues and jazz on classical works. The evening continues with selections from George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.

TICKETS

Call 410-783-8100

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