- The Washington Times - Friday, July 3, 2009

Darin Atwater, like Beethoven, one of his musical muses, started playing piano at the age of 4. Beethoven left school at 11 to become an assistant organist; Mr. Atwater’s first arrangement came at the same age, when he wrote a rendition of the gospel standard “Blessed Assurance” for the choir of the Third Street Church of God in the District.

Beethoven received his first music lessons from his father, who was a tenor in the choir of the Archbishop-Elector of Cologne, in Bonn, Germany. Mr. Atwater, mainly self-taught, learned music from listening to Beethoven on his grandmother’s wooden gramophone and playing on her upright Wurlitzer.

There the similarities between the 18th-century and 21st-century pianists and composers may end.

“Everyone has wanted to be accepted by embracing the European [musical] standard. But I’m embracing our standard. Let’s be wildly American, which means going back to our roots anyway,” Mr. Atwater said about drawing most of his material from black music forms, beginning with drumbeats and slave spirituals.

The 38-year-old composer, conductor and pianist, who has a background in classical, jazz, gospel and sacred music, continues to raise his musical stature by blending these genres in an innovative mix that is uncharacteristic of his generation.

“We’re beginning to make some new inroads in the music arena, and not just in gospel,” Mr. Atwater said in a recent interview. “We’re taking music to a new level; we’re elevating music. We perform from Motown to Duke Ellington to pop, and we take music and celebrate it in a grand way.”

His gospel concertos, which combine a spiritual and classical sound, have been well-received, but audiences jumped to their feet when Mr. Atwater’s Soul Symphony performed its signature “The Sounds of Motown” program at the Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda in May.

Not sure what to expect, members of the business and professional sorority Gamma Phi Delta - who were meeting in the area for their annual convention - seemed surprised as they watched Mr. Atwater heartily conduct the Motown review as a lineup of performers imitated the original acts.

Some of the women said they were taken back to Detroit of the 1950s and 1960s, as their sorority was founded directly across the street from Hitsville USA, Motown’s original recording studio, on West Grand Boulevard.

“It really took them back” said Donna Harrell, Eastern regional director of the sorority. “Hips were shaking all over the theater, and some hand-danced in the aisles. It was wonderful.”

“There’s just nothing like it,” Ms. Harrell said, praising Mr. Atwater and the Soul Symphony. “Usually we see only a few African-Americans in concert, with even less in the audience, but for the recent show at Strathmore, African-Americans were there in great numbers, and so were others. To be on the stage playing this beautiful music, composed and conducted by a black composer, surrounded by all of these very talented African-American musicians is just amazing, and [it] made us all very proud.”

In fact, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO), which operates Strathmore, partnered with Mr. Atwater to increase attendance by black patrons, according to the Baltimore City Paper.

Touted for his imaginative style by such music greats as jazz trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis, Mr. Atwater has conducted sold-out performances worldwide, arranging recordings and accompanying such singers as Richard Smallwood, Kirk Franklin, Yolanda Adams, Shirley Caesar and the Winans on the gospel concert circuit since his 20s.

“We’ve crossed musical genres by writing works and arranging concert shows for [gospel artists],” said Mr. Atwater, who also has conducted the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO), the BSO and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.

“It was very exciting. We would prepare the music of the gospel artists in a rare opportunity. Most gospel artists don’t have a full-scale orchestra,” he said.

Mr. Atwater, who was born in the District, was directing his own ensemble by age 12. He says that if he had had more classical music training as a child, he probably would be a concert pianist or conventional orchestra conductor now.

His early musical training started with his parents, who were members of their church choir. His mother, Marian, a teacher, often took him to hear the NSO, which gave him a broad view of music. His father, John, an IBM executive, predicted that he would write a concerto one day .

Mr. Atwater entered Morgan State University in Baltimore to study business management. He switched majors, however, after coming under the spell and tutelage of the legendary Nathan Carter, the late conductor of the Morgan State University Choir.

At Morgan, Mr. Atwater’s keyboard skills caught the attention of the Winans and Mr. Smallwood, who took him on tour. He continued his classes long-distance.

After returning to Morgan, Mr. Atwater also began classes in composition at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University with Morris Cotel and was selected to represent the department in a master class with famed composer John Corigliano.

Both instructors discouraged him from completing his degree, telling Mr. Atwater further classical training might compromise his distinctive style.

Mr. Atwater’s more traditional work can be likened to that of classical composers such as Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms. If you were to compare his work with more contemporary composers, the work of Thomas A. Dorsey and James Cleveland on the gospel front and Berry Gordy in pop or rock come to mind.

The Soulful Symphony Web site, www.soulfulsymphony.org, sums up his career:

Mr. Atwater made his orchestral debut as both composer and pianist in May 1995 with the NSO, premiering “Maschil” for piano and orchestra. In winter 1995, he was arranger, pianist and musical director for La Scala, touring throughout Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and Austria.

The following year, the NSO, along with the Cathedral Choral Arts Society, premiered his “Proclamations” for brass, organ, timpani and chorus. Mr. Atwater appeared with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, Detroit Symphony and the American Composers Orchestra.

The Web site Jazz at Lincoln Center, jalc.org, provides more background:

In October 1977, Mr. Atwater and the NSO accompanied Kathleen Battle for the reopening of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. In a May 1998 appearance with the BSO, he performed his Piano Concerto and the premiere of his “Fanfare for Orchestra.”

Mr. Atwater and the Morgan State University Choir performed a celebration of gospel for President and Mrs. Jimmy Carter on the South Lawn of the White House in June 1998.

The Soulful Symphony debuted in February 2000 in the premiere of “Song in a Strange Land,” a “contemporary exploration of spirituals” that featured Wynton Marsalis, Karen Clark-Sheard and Kim Burrell.

National Public Radio said in a March review that Mr. Atwater “combines strands of gospel, jazz, R&B; and even hip-hop in his orchestral music. In the process, he’s redefining what has remained a quintessentially European art form: the symphony orchestra. Practically everything about an Atwater concert stands in contrast to a standard symphony: the musicians on stage, the people sitting in the audience and, most of all, the sound.”

“Everybody has a call,” Mr. Atwater says simply.

“My question to myself a few years ago was, ‘What is my greatest contribution to the world and the people that God has called me to influence? What have great men before me done to achieve it, because whenever you’re dealing with something that’s bigger than yourself, there’s a level of art where you begin to engineer your culture.’ ”

Like a Beethoven?

Lydia Grant is a religion writer living in the District.

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