Soulful Symphony, Hippodrome Celebrate Partnership


It happened in a concert hall on a Saturday night, not in a sanctuary on Sunday, but Darin Atwater and his Soulful Symphony took their audience to church during a Feb. 23 performance at Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre.

Featuring more than 50 instrumentalists and vocalists, and a handful of independent artists who made guest appearances, the show was a compilation of old and new Soulful Symphony compositions and arrangements melded with new takes entitled “Best of Soulful Symphony.” Six months after the conclusion of their last season, the African-American orchestra took the audience from Kirk Franklin’s “My Life is in Your Hands” to Kurt Carr’s “For Every Mounain.”

Then, as the audience was shouting praises, the lights went up for intermission. After the break, the gospel was replaced by R&B. “Can’t Help Myself,” by the Four Tops, got them rocking in their chairs again. Four male singers that accompanied the symphony drew laughter with their 70s-style dance steps.

      “Sugar pie, honey bunch! You know that I LOVE you!” the lead singer crooned.
      “Love you!” the three backups chimed in, stepping in unison.
      “Can’t help myself! I love you and nobody else!”
      Then, from the audience, “Dunh, dunh, dunh, dunhhhhh!”

Soulful Symphony performances are always fun. Though many of the musicians are classically trained, the concerts cross the boundaries of classical music and combine it with genres that are more movable, such as soul, jazz and hip-hop. Six years ago, Atwater, the symphony’s founder, composer and musical director, presented “Paint Factory,” a collection of songs he wrote and arranged sauced with a heavy dose of hip-hop and jazz.

Some of those songs found their way into the Feb. 23 program. “Blue” took Atwater from the conductor’s perch to the piano, where he served as the featured soloist on the uplifting song.

But it wasn’t all about having a good time. The concert served was a benefit for education and outreach programs for the Hippodrome Foundation and Soulful Symphony, officials said.

Atwater, who made his orchestra debut with the National Symphony Orchestra in 1995 and founded the Soulful Symphony five years later, told the {AFRO} that after ending his partnership with the Baltimore Symphony, he sat down with officials from the Hippodrome and discussed joining forces with them. The symphony is currently in the process of partnering with the Hippodrome Foundation, as well.

“The mission of the Hippodrome Foundation is to increase access to the theater and all of its assets,” said foundation director Olive Waxter.

One of the foundation’s most impacting charitable programs is Camp Hippodrome, a free theater camp that is offered at the venue itself. The foundation hosts three one-week camps each summer for rising eighth graders, including a two-day tech camp for those interested in production. The students at the camp learn selected plays or musicals. At the end of the week, they perform the production in front of their families at the Hippodrome Theatre. Camp Hippodrome also does several one-day camps over the course of the year for bigger crowds, such as school and church groups. Waxter says the camp has even hosted the Maryland School for the Blind.

“The purpose of Camp Hippodrome is to help indulge middle school students who don’t quite know what they want to do yet in theater,” said Markia Washington, 16, of Baltimore, who has been involved with Camp Hippodrome, both as an intern and as a camper, since she was 11. She credits the program with inspiring her to get into musical theater. Washington drew thunderous applause and cheers on Feb. 23 when she sang “Good Morning, Baltimore,” from the musical “Hairspray” during the concert.

Officials said the camp has made a big difference in the lives of countless budding artists by kindling an interest in the arts that has turned into a passion for most. The Hippodrome Theatre has even hired a few of the Camp Hippodrome alumni, both as interns and actual employees, once they turn 18.

The Soulful Symphony and the Hippodrome Foundation adopted Lansdowne High School in Baltimore County. Atwater worked with the students in the choir program as they prepared for their spring concert and local and state choral competitions. With his help, the Lansdowne choir received superior ratings at the state festival for the first time since 1980, officials said.

Atwater has been helping young musicians in schools across Maryland and Washington, D.C. for years, and all the students in the programs he’s worked with are invited to sit in on the Soulful Symphony’s concert-day rehearsals.

Atwater said he is concerned about cuts in school arts funding. He plans to meet with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake about the budget cuts affecting the arts programs in Baltimore schools. Cutting school arts funding is “taking the creative impulse away from the kids,” he said.

Atwater said he also plans to film a second live recording of the Soulful Symphony with PBS. They will be performing and recording “Paint Factory,” an audience favorite.

“The next season of performances will be announced within the next six weeks,” he said.

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Soulful Symphony, Hippodrome Celebrate Partnership

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