Soulful Symphony elevates Howard County

Merriweather Post Pavilion gets its own resident orchestra

Long-time Howard County residents (or people who’ve read my Creating the Chrysalis timeline) may recall that when Merriweather Post Pavilion was built, over fifty years ago, it was intended to become the permanent summer home for the National Symphony Orchestra. A few years later the NSO left Merriweather Post Pavilion, and soon after that the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra began playing summer concerts at the pavilion. The BSO eventually left as well, and since then Merriweather Post Pavilion has had no resident orchestra. Until now.

Recently the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission announced that Soulful Symphony, an orchestra led by DCACC artistic director Darin Atwater, would make Merriweather Post Pavilion its new (summer) home. This announcement is interesting for at least three reasons: for what it says about Merriweather Post Pavilion, what it says about Soulful Symphony and the future of classical music, and what it implies for future support of the arts in Columbia and Howard County.

First, why Soulful Symphony and Merriweather Post Pavilion? For reasons discussed below, although they may do occasional performances, it’s extremely unlikely that Merriweather Post Pavilion would ever again serve as an exclusive summer residence for either of the two main regional symphony orchestras, the National Symphony Orchestra or the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

What about the Columbia Symphony Orchestra? It is rooted in Howard County, has successfully navigated the last forty years of its existence, and based on its most recent annual report appears to have been able to put on a relatively ambitious series of performances, play to near-capacity audiences at its main venue (the 742-seat James W. Rouse Theater at Wilde Lake High School), and manage its finances well.

An initial answer would be, well, Darin Atwater is the artistic director for DCACC and DCACC now owns Merriweather Post Pavilion, so of course Atwater’s Soulful Symphony is a natural choice for a resident orchestra. That somewhat begs the question, though: why pick someone like Darin Atwater for DCACC artistic director in the first place?

My answer, one echoed by Atwater himself in the podcast, is that whatever Jim Rouse’s intent may have been in building Merriweather Post Pavilion, its core DNA is not that of a classical music hall but that of an amphitheater hosting popular music performances by many of the most important artists of the last 50 years. Merriweather Post Pavilion is famous not because the NSO or BSO played there, but because it hosted concerts by Stevie Wonder, Pink Floyd, the Carpenters, B.B. King, John Denver, Ella Fitzgerald, the Kinks, Miles Davis and Muddy Waters, Al Green, Judy Collins, the Temptations, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and the Beach Boys—to name only a few of the acts featured in just the summer of 1973.

Thus it’s only appropriate that if Merriweather Post Pavilion is to have a resident orchestra, it have one that is not a traditional symphony orchestra but one that has one foot in the classical music tradition and the other in the popular music of America.

Which brings me to my second point: arguably the major problem with classical music in America today is that (unlike classical music in other times and other countries) it has few if any connections to American culture at large. As the critic and composer Greg Sandow wrote, “We don’t connect well with the world. Most of the music we play is from the past, while the people around us are connecting with the culture and concerns of the present.”

And when it comes to music, “American culture” today really means African American culture. It is the wellspring from which have arisen all the American music genres of importance, and its influence has traveled around the globe, from blues-influenced (and sometimes blues-plagiarizing) 1960s British rock to R&B- and hip hop-influenced contemporary K-pop (to name only two).

However, as Atwater notes in his comments, African American musical culture has been at best only fitfully reflected in classical music, which is to a great degree a foreign growth transplanted to American soil, and all the weaker for it: As Sandow notes, the audience for classical music in America is declining, and is increasingly dominated by the elderly. (For example, according to its 2018 annual report, seniors comprised over 60% of the audience for the Columbia Orchestra’s core series of classical music performances, and students less than 10%.)

As Atwater outlines it, his mission is to diversify the classical music repertoire, to help create a music that speaks “the native tongue of the people”: “Music now has to speak to all Americans, it can’t just speak to a segment of America.” In that sense I think Soulful Symphony is a good fit for Merriweather Post Pavilion, and for what the DCACC hopes that the pavilion can be for the residents of Columbia and Howard County.

Thus my third and final point: One major reason why the National Symphony Orchestra left Merriweather Post Pavilion is that Catherine Filene Shouse donated millions of dollar to build the Wolf Trap performing arts center in Northern Virginia near McLean and Great Falls, home to many of the most wealthy and powerful people in the Washington metro area.

One major reason why the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra left Merriweather Post Pavilion is that Joseph Meyerhoff, who donated the funds to construct Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore, worked to secure a new summer performance venue for the BSO in Oregon Ridge Park near Hunt Valley, home to many of the most wealthy and powerful people in the Baltimore metro area.

In contrast, the wealthiest philanthropist ever mentioned in relation to Columbia and Howard County was Marjorie Merriweather Post, who famously never gave a dime to help fund construction of the pavilion that bears her name. Howard County is not home to the truly wealthy and powerful.

Thus now that Merriweather Post Pavilion has been transferred to the DCACC, the future of the venue will be dependent on a mix of financial streams: revenue from concerts at the pavilion, corporate sponsorships, and the other monetary contributions of Howard County and (more generally) Maryland residents, whether directly via donations or indirectly through their county and state taxes.

Put simply, the future of Merriweather Post Pavilion depends on us (as does that of the larger Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods, including the Chrysalis amphitheater). I think by hosting Soulful Symphony and through its other activities DCACC has made clear its intention to make Merriweather Post Pavilion a place that offers music and other cultural performances for all of Howard County. Now it’s up to us to ensure that that outreach is rewarded.