Introducing the players, from left to right: Matt Darsey on viola. He’s been playing since fifth grade, performs regularly with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra and four others in North Carolina, and teaches viola at Winthrop University in Rock Hill. Next to him: Jane Hart Brendle on violin. She holds a master’s in applied violin performance, has played in the Charlotte Symphony since 1995, and plays with and arranges for the chamber group Carolina Strings. At center stage, facing rows of empty seats at Stage Door Theater uptown, is Greg Cox: singer, songwriter, rapper, son of a gospel singer, Grammy winner.
Everyone’s dressed in black, but the mood’s playful. Cox addresses the camera: “Thank you again to NoteWorthy for having us. You know, we’ve been having a lot of fun. We should groove a little bit. What do you think?” The 32-year-old Black man—who wears high-top Nikes and sunglasses—turns to his white, classically trained partners. They nod yes and raise their instruments to their chins, and you can see the smiles behind their masks; it’s March 2021, in the thick of COVID, and no one’s vaccinated yet. “I like grooving. It’s one of the best things in the world. And the way that you guys sauce these songs—you know exactly what I want.”
Back to the camera. “We know exactly what you want at home. So we gonna give you that. You guys ready?” The song is called “Want,” and Darsey and Brendle lay lilting strings over Cox’s neo-soul. “I know what you want. Good God, come on/ Took a long time to get it, took a long time to stay with it,” Cox croons as he dances and snaps his fingers, encouraging the audience on Facebook Live to drop fire emojis into the chat.
No one would expect the alliance on the stage. The same holds for the two institutions behind NoteWorthy, a project that joins classical musicians for collaborations and performances with their counterparts in hip-hop, R&B, jazz, blues, gospel, and other genres. It’s the creation of the FAIR PLAY Music Equity Initiative, founded in 2019 by recording artist and entrepreneur David “Dae-Lee” Arrington; and WDAV-FM in Davidson, the Charlotte area’s radio home for classical music since 1978. As of this writing, WDAV had aired four of these events, recorded in advance, with another the station planned to air Oct. 27. Cox’s show, streamed via Facebook on May 26, was the second, and it’s the one that stands out to WDAV’s general manager, Frank Dominguez. He explains to me that Cox is so funny and engaging, and “the way he presents is so removed from normal classical presentation, that you think, This can’t possibly work—and yet it does.”
Undeniable. The musicians on stage bring “Want” to a smooth conclusion, and Cox—who had recently watched the 1988 comedy Coming to America, starring Eddie Murphy—wraps it up with a modified line from the film that is, indeed, quite removed from normal classical presentation. He extends an arm toward his collaborators and proclaims to the empty theater: “Sexual White Chocolate, ladies and gentlemen!”
When you apply the term “classical” to any art—sculpture, music, painting, architecture—you assume its essentiality. This is the standard; other genres might evolve from it, or spring from different roots, and the works they produce might be worthy, and you may see or hear them with appreciation and affection. But they’re rooms and floors built atop the foundation, or secondary structures. Porgy and Bess has widely accepted artistic merit. So do What’s Going On and A Love Supreme and Madvillainy. But no one, at least in the traditional cultural mainstream, would question the towering centrality of Bach’s Mass in B Minor, regardless of whether they actually like it.
This is the tricky matter of what’s considered “the canon,” and who gets to grant admission, and on what grounds. Kari Giles has little patience for it. Giles, who first picked up a violin at age 5, has been the Charlotte Symphony’s assistant concertmaster for 15 years, and she’s in charge of rounding up classical musicians to take part in NoteWorthy. She has a term for the presumed limits imposed on her and her orchestral colleagues: “the Beethoven box.”
“In my symphony role, I’m asked to play a lot of Beethoven, a lot of Haydn, a lot of Mozart—a lot of dead white composers, because that’s the canon. That’s the history. That’s the tradition. And there’s a lot of focus on recreating these great masterworks to perfection,” she tells me. “It’s not to say that they aren’t amazing pieces of music, but there’s other music out there that’s equally amazing that we’re not listening to.” She adopts the voice of a music snob: “‘Oh, jazz is not as good as classical. Oh, hip-hop isn’t as good as jazz.’ That’s crap. There are artists in every field who are creating amazing pieces of work.”
Another way of saying it: The canon is, with a few exceptions, the domain of white men. Increasingly, and especially since the May 2020 police murder of George Floyd, the culture at large has been forced into a jittery reckoning with the concept of “whiteness,” and how it dominates in ways most white people seldom think about because they don’t have to.
Even before Floyd’s murder and the protests that followed, Will Keible, WDAV’s marketing director since 2012, sensed that he might not be as culturally aware as he’d thought. Keible attended an Arts & Science Council race and equity workshop at the Charlotte Ballet’s Center for Dance in January 2020 and emerged feeling humbled. “It was powerful. It was moving,” Keible, 46 and white, tells me. “I just came away with a better understanding of the systems that have been in place for a long time working against those communities.”
At first, Keible thought the station could organize a grant program for musicians of color, or maybe a concert series in which classical musicians could play in their communities instead of Blumenthal Performing Arts venues. He figured “Dae-Lee” Arrington’s FAIR PLAY organization might be a good partner. He reached out and pitched his ideas. Dae-Lee thought they were … OK. But they were still too disconnected, too distant.
“In Charlotte, we have tons of money, and we can throw it around, but we don’t have to change our circle of influence,” Dae-Lee tells me. “We don’t have to change our relational connections. We don’t have to become more competent and caring for those who don’t look like us. And I believe that’s a part of the problem. … I can appreciate certain things, but I definitely don’t feel like an insider within that culture. It belongs to someone else.”
If you want to connect people and communities, Dae-Lee told Keible, connect them. Find a space, bring them together, and, Dae-Lee says, “build uncommon relationships.” This was summer 2020, and the world had shut down, and both men realized they’d have to hold off on live performances. But lockdown meant more time to think about and plan what they wanted to do. Dae-Lee arranged for Hue House, a creative agency he co-founded in 2019, to handle promotion. By September 2020, the outline of NoteWorthy had taken shape.
Keible just had to convince Frank Dominguez and the rest of the team at WDAV. The station has extended a feeler or two outside of the box—it planned and aired Lift Every Voice, a four-episode program that celebrated Black contributions to classical music, for Black History Month in February—but Dominguez wondered if NoteWorthy was venturing too far. He recalls thinking: Exactly how does this fit into our wheelhouse? How is this part of our mission? The station’s defined mission is to build community through classical music, and Dominguez and his staff eventually realized that, although they still had doubts, it was worth doing.
“That’s what people have to understand about DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) work: It’s not always going to be comfortable,” Dominguez tells me. “Sometimes it’s going to be unpredictable. But the objective is worthwhile. It’s worth taking the risk if the outcome is positive and something you believe in. And I think that’s what we all did. We resigned ourselves to feeling a little uncomfortable.”
The discomfort and doubt melted away when, on Saturday, March 13, Arsena Schroeder took the stage.
Schroeder’s is the first of three performances filmed that day. Greg Cox is next, followed by singer-songwriter and activist Quisol accompanied by Kari Giles and cellist Jeremy Lamb. Schroeder is a 30-year-old Pittsburgh native who says her brief experience with formal musical training in college “stifled my creativity.”
The first song is called “No Pressure,” and a seated Schroeder strums a folk-inflected tune on a Breedlove acoustic as she sings: “I was searching for a time/ That I could relax and undress my mind/ But all the time I knew that you/ Had expectations of what I should do …” Alongside her are Lenora Cox Leggatt on violin, Leonard Mark Lewis on piano, and Chris Suter on electric guitar. The formally trained musicians add subtle accompaniment that enhances Schroeder’s guitar and voice, which have staked spaces at the center of the performance.
From offstage, Keible sees and hears his and Dae-Lee’s experiment realized, and his relief that it works at all gives way to elation at the undeniable evidence that it’s good. He texts Mary Lathem, his marketing colleague at the station: This is going to be amazing. “Just from watching the performances as they were being recorded, I knew we were going to be OK,” he tells me on an August afternoon at the station as it broadcasts a Telemann overture, a canon staple. “From that moment on, all of that anxiety just went right out, and it’s been a great run ever since.”
WDAV released Schroeder’s performance in April, then Cox’s in May and Quisol’s in June. The station taped another two shows at Stage Door on June 25: gospel singer Karen Poole and her backup singers along with violinist Alice Silva, trumpeter Keenan Harmon, and trombonist Brent Ballard; and Charlotte native and saxophonist Harvey Cummings II with Giles, Brendle, violinist Malik Johnson, and cellist Marlene Ballena. All were streamed on Facebook—Poole’s on Sept. 1, Cummings’ on Oct. 27—and are available on the program’s website, noteworthyclassical.org.
They’re no substitute for live shows. Everyone involved in NoteWorthy was disappointed when, in August, the threat of COVID forced the postponement of the Charlotte SHOUT! Festival, which had booked the program’s participating musicians. They’re frustrated, too, that the virus’s resurgence has limited their ability to collaborate with their NoteWorthy connections.
Schroeder says the NoteWorthy accompaniment gave her a glimpse of the fuller sound she’s always envisioned for her music. Greg Cox tells me he loves the force of massed instruments and voices. He grew up with gospel choirs, and he knows what it’s like to hear and feel multiple voices singing in unison. He likens it to a tidal wave. “I wish I would have had a full band, man,” he tells me months after his show with Darsey and Brendle. “Really was able to stretch it out, you know, push it out.”
Yet he stays in occasional-text touch with both of his NoteWorthy collaborators. Time and COVID willing, they’ll get to it at some point. WDAV and FAIR PLAY want to keep NoteWorthy going, at least for another year. They just haven’t worked out what it’ll look like or what other options they have. “It’s not the kind of work that you just do for a season or two,” Dominguez says, “and then everything’s done.”
In the meantime, the connections that have emerged from it, social at least as much as musical, continue to teach the musicians who made them. Cox, in his idiosyncratic way, says he’d always thought of classical musicians as ninjas or Jedi—as if a smoke bomb detonated onstage, and formally attired musicians materialized with violas and bassoons, played along with Stevie Wonder or The Lion King, then disappeared in another cloud of smoke. Who were they? Where did they come from? What’s behind that curtain?
NoteWorthy, he says, gave him a chance to draw the curtain aside and not just take a peek but enter the room, where he discovered that the Jedi were not just willing but eager to hear how he felt the Force. Before his first rehearsal, he tells me, he “felt a little bit of imposter syndrome.” Once he and his partners settled into their groove, all was in balance. “I feel like they taught me,” he says, “that we’re not as different as I thought.”
Greg Lacour is the senior editor of this magazine.