CANTON  From its crowd-pleasing rock-meets-classical concerts celebrating Prince, Queen and Led Zeppelin to popular collaborative pops concerts with folk-rock band The Speedbumps at the Palace Theatre, the Canton Symphony Orchestra is dedicated to growing and diversifying its audience while maintaining an impeccable classical program.

Much of this is due to the vision of Michelle Mullaly, the orchestra's president and CEO, who in 2018 launched yet another innovative series, Divergent Sounds, which unites small ensembles of orchestra musicians with top bands and solo artists from Northeast Ohio. The second season of Divergent concerts launches Jan. 17.

"Tommy Bruno from The Summit (public radio station at 91.3 FM) in Akron were just talking one day and I said it would be super cool if I could bring in these local bands that I know and love and pair them with our musicians," said Mullaly, a board member at The Summit. "I ran some numbers, knew I could break even and threw it together." She credits Carol Murphy, Canton Symphony development director, for her ideas.

Mullaly's choice for the first Divergent Sounds concert was "a little risky," stylistically, she said. The program paired a rapper called A-minus and his DJ with three Canton Symphony musicians, using musical arrangements written by Mullaly's son Nathan. "It was very experimental. I was the most nervous about that one to be honest. It ended up being really fun." A-Minus ended up hiring the symphony cellist to play on his recording project.

Divergent concerts are casual and intimate, held in Foundation Hall at the Zimmermann Symphony Center at 2331 17th St. NW. Admission is $10, and there's a cash bar. While the featured musicians are different each time, the concert format is the same. The first 15 minutes feature the band playing by itself and talking to the audience about its music and influences. Then three or four symphony musicians, chosen by the band for the instruments they play, join the band for about 45 minutes, using musical arrangements specifically written for the concert by a hired arranger. Kevin Martinez from The Speedbumps is the frequent arranger.

"It's super fun to watch the bands and see their music come to life with these additional musicians," Mullaly said. "The bands are great musicians in their genres, and its cool to see our (orchestral) musicians working in a different way." Becca Rhoades, a Canton Symphony violinist, got to showcase her skills as a fiddler when she joined Shooter Sharp & the Shootouts, a bluegrass combo, at its Divergent concert.

In October, Divergent Sounds featured Angie Haze, an Akron-based singer, songwriter and musicians who describes her music as "gypsy folk." The concert featured Haze and five members from her 10-piece band, joined by violin, viola, cello and upright bass players from Canton Symphony.

"I cried," Haze said about the experience, meaning tears of joy. "The musicians were great. They seemed really eager and wanting to get it right. They were really good at watching me. I was so impressed the first time we rehearsed together, they picked it up so quickly. I had to stop (the rehearsal) a couple of times because I was so taken by it. It was so emotional for me.

 

"I am so grateful for Michelle," Haze said about Divergent Sounds. "Putting something together like this is a way to tie in this authentic classical-based vibe with popular music to me is everything. It's what keeps us engaged and coming back to concerts, finding something new and looking into our history. I'm so honored to be a part of it." (Haze and her full band will play ao concert with the full Canton Symphony orchestra and chorus in May 2020).

Divergent Sounds concerts are intimate events by design, with seating limited to 125 people and minimal amplification. "The audience is different at every one, very diverse, we're getting little kids, senior citizens," Mullaly said. "We're relying on the groups to push it through Facebook. The Summit has been hugely supportive."

Upcoming concerts include the Ohio Weather Band, White Buffalo Woman, Cody J. Martin and Demos Papadimas. See box for details.