Howard Magazine - Page 30 - Soulful Serenade

Howard Magazine
- Page 30
Soulful Serenade

by john-john Williams iv Howard Magazine
Photos by karl m. ferron


When violinist Jessica McJunkins looks out into the audience during performances of the Soulful Symphony, she can’t help but brim with joy.


When she was growing up, she rarely saw people who looked like her playing string instruments—and nothing to the extent of Soulful Symphony, which is composed of mostly black and Latino musicians.


“You are aware that seeing people that look like you is powerful,” says McJunkins, a 32-year-old soloing member of Beyonce’s band who also performs with the group, which will embark on a three-year residency at Columbia’s Merriweather Post Pavilion in June.


She remembers being an 11-year-old aspiring violinist in Charlotte, N.C., and seeing Regina Carter, a black jazz violinist, for the first time.


“I was mind-blown. And I worked twice as hard after that because I could see it was possible. She was young and just edgy and just us. There was something there that I recognized,” recalls McJunkins, who has been with Soulful Symphony since 2014.


Soulful Symphony’s founder, 48-year-old Darin Atwater, calls the orchestra’s residency at the pavilion the “bookend to the fulfillment of the vision of Rouse.”


Columbia developer James Rouse, known as a proponent of racial diversity, originally envisioned Merriweather Post Pavilion as the permanent summer home of the National Symphony Orchestra. But the orchestra played only two seasons— 1967 and 1968 — at the venue.


And Atwater doesn’t take his new responsibility lightly. He knows the power that his group harnesses.


“The optics of the symphony have been important,” says Atwater, a Morgan State University and Peabody Institute graduate who was encouraged to play music from a young age. “In Soulful Symphony, not only does [an audience member] he see a person of color, but he also sees a violin when we’re playing hip hop music or Motown. It opens up the possibilities of what is possible for that instrument in that space. It’s redefining the space as well.”


Performances by Soulful Symphony differ from more traditional classical orchestras because they veer away from solely focusing on European composers and styles while embracing more contemporary artists and styles, explains Atwater, the symphony’s artistic director and conductor.


“We have musicians who have been conservatory trained. And we have musicians who are in more of the vernacular roots tradition where they play more improvisational. We kind of juxtaposed both positions,” he says. “Our musicians have to have the