As the first beat of this show drops, audience members’ heads nod, feet tap and the theater-style seats at The Cube literally rock.
It’s an early indication this is going to be an extraordinary show in the 475-seat recital hall at The Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center in Detroit (aka “The Max”), but any doubt evaporates as Haleem “Stringz” Rasul and the Hardcore Detroit break-dance collective take the stage − spinning, snaking their bodies across the floor, leaping through the air, bopping to the beat and making moves that at times seem humanly impossible − to roaring applause and standing ovations.
After Hardcore Detroit’s performance, the casually attired audience has 20 minutes to mix and mingle among one another, sip beverages and scan the newly displayed “Art @ the Max” in the lobby, where Detroit-based vendors are selling hot crepes from the French Cow Crepes Shop, jewelry from Rebel Nell, Delphine’s D n V Jamaican Seasonings, and t-shirts and other items by Cyberoptix TieLab/Well Done Goods. The scene is energetic and atypical for a venue where a symphony orchestra performs.
Then enter Brooklyn-based, classically trained string duo Chargaux. They possess a fluid, unique, classical sound fused with neo-soul and hip hop. Well, sort of. There actually isn’t a current sound that compares to Chargaux – native Detroiter Jasmin “Charly” Charles and Margaux Whitney − who met in Boston and began blending the viola and violin with contemporary sounds and beats.
The pair are making their Detroit debut on this February night, but you may have heard them before: forward to the end of Kendrick Lamar’s bodacious single “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” on the Good Kid m.a.a.d City album and you’ll hear Chargaux’s cameo recording. They were also featured on another Grammy-nominated project, J. Cole’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive, and in the film Divergent. Additionally, they’ve covered songs such as Beyoncé’s “Partition” and Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights.”
The entertainment is part of the “Mix @ The Max” performance series held in the space formerly known as the Music Box at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. The space was recently renamed the Peter D. & Julie F. Cummings Cube, in homage to the couple for their $10 million in donations to the orchestra.
Performances at The Cube, flexible enough to allow for standing room only, cabaret-style seating with tables, or tiered-theater seating with a few VIP tables up front, are part of a DSO initiative to rebrand and re-energize the space to appeal to audiences beyond its core genres: classical, pops and jazz.
“It’s really about diverse programming, which goes along with DSO’s mission of accessibility, because as a symphony orchestra, we want to be one of the most accessible in the world,” says Ben Brueninger, the DSO’s public relations coordinator.
“That means helping people who are not as familiar with classical music still enjoy the shows. That means keeping ticket prices low. That means doing everything we can to get kids playing music. We want to offer programming that anyone can really enjoy, and so part of that is having this flexible performance space with music that crosses genres, and an interdisciplinary approach that blends in visual art, food and retail, and the other things that happen in the atrium outside of the concert.”
That means ramping up the entertainment with acts such as Chargaux.
Chris Harrington, a 31-year-old native Detroiter, is the brainchild for booking the unusual, high-energy talent as the managing director of Paradise Jazz Series and managing director & curator of @ The Max. Along with promoting and producing DSO shows with jazz trumpeter and DSO Erb Jazz Chair Terence Blanchard, he says he attends live concerts, festivals, scours YouTube videos, and listens to Spotify, NPR Music and new music that WDET-FM DJs play to find the unusual talent he books at The Cube.
For this night’s show, he’d previously worked with Hardcore Detroit; a colleague recommended Chargaux to him.
“I’m always trying to get out and check out live music as much as humanly possible,” he says. “Chargaux actually has been a group we’re familiar with in terms of the DSO, and we thought it would be a really good fit for this program.
“This was a soft launch for our Classical Roots [series] kick off. It was the perfect set. I approach booking in that space by keeping my finger on the pulse of what’s going on in all different types of genres and bringing talent here that we think will appeal to our fan base and patrons we want to attract.”
Artists such as Chargaux and others who perform at The Cube are attracting new audiences to the DSO, Harrington says. For example, in an informal poll of the audience when Hardcore Detroit and Chargaux performed, he learned that about 65 percent of the audience had never attended a DSO performance before.
He also found that more than 50 percent of audiences were DSO first-timers at other events, such as “The Hang” show at 10 p.m., which followed the Dianne Reeves and Chick Corea concerts featuring the Marcus Elliott Quartet and the Sean Dobbins Organ Quartet, respectively. New audiences also enjoyed acts such as Stormy Love: Songs of Seduction and Obsession featuring Storm Large & Le Bonheur, and the Brooklyn-based group Red Baraat, who performed the first concert at the Cube when it was re-branded in September.
“It’s a really good feeling just to know we’re presenting talent that is outside the norm of what we’ve done historically,” Harrington says, “but we’re meeting our objectives of presenting music that is relevant, accessible and reflects the rich community that we serve and speaks to the rich cultural history and fabric of Detroit, a hotbed for music. There’s a lot going on here, and we just try to make sure we have something for everyone.”
Harrington notes that he took it to heart when DSO Chairman Emeritus Peter D. Cummings, developer and son-in-law of the late Max M. Fisher, the building’s main benefactor who died in 2005, challenged him with, “you should only be limited by your imagination,” when discussing the new focus for the space over breakfast last autumn.
That’s why this season’s entertainment at The Cube also will include creative events such as an encore of “Om @ The Max,” where yoga instructor Rebecca Ruth of the Detroit Yoga Lab will lead a slow, relaxing yin-style yoga session to live chamber music performed by members of the DSO at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday, March 5.
A Salsa Dance Party featuring the DSO’s Civic Jazz Orchestra kicks off on Friday, March 24 at 8 p.m. with a lesson by award-winning Latin dancer/instructor Mambo Marci and wraps with dancing on the open floor to the live music set and drink specials.
For tickets and more details of upcoming events in the Paradise Valley Jazz series, Classical Roots and other DSO shows, visit dso.org.