Bach meets Bell Biv Devoe: At the Black Notes Project music festival (January 26th and 27th), an orchestral ensemble will put a classical spin on R&B hits

Jan 2, 2024 / Blog
By Page Leggett

Malik Johnson is a violinst, music educator (at Cabarrus Charter Academy) and member of the Charlotte Strings Collective.

He’ll step out of his classical comfort zone when the newly formed Black Notes Project Ensemble - of which he's a member - makes its debut Friday, Jan. 26 at the Knight Theater. The concert is part of the Black Notes Project, a weekend festival that celebrates Black music and artistry. Organizers intend for it to become an annual event.  


(Malik Johnson)

Instead of playing Bach and Beethoven – and contemporary Black composers like Vanessa Fanning and Dorothy Rudd Moore – the 20-member ensemble will perform songs by BBD, Earth Wind & Fire, Teddy Pendergrass and more.

Produced by The Sol Kitchen in collaboration with Blumenthal Performing Arts, the two-day, indoor festival features two evening concerts, plus daytime, family-friendly events. The inaugural event celebrates the Black American Songbook while fusing classical orchestral music, pop and R&B.  

The festival will feature local talent – including the Charlotte Symphony Youth Orchestra – and marquee names, including Grammy-nominated harpist Brandee Younger, BET Awards performer Mad Skillz, trumpeter Igmar Thomas and his Revive Big Band and the social media sensation and 4-year-old rapper, VanVan.


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Johnson and Philip Biedenbender, who’s conducting the Black Notes Project Ensemble, are especially excited to see Younger perform jazz standards live. You’ve probably never heard the harp played this way. “She’s changing people’s perspectives,” Biedenbender said. “She makes you realize that instruments you think you know well are capable of so much more.”

Johnson added, “Harpists of Brandee’s caliber are few and far between.”

The Black Notes Project Ensemble is comprised of local instrumentalists (including members of the Charlotte Strings Collective) and led by Biedenbender, managing director, assistant conductor and pianist of the Charlotte Master Chorale. 

Biedenbender is also a composer whose works have been performed across the globe. He holds a master’s degree in choral conducting and is chancel choir director at First ARP Church in Gastonia.

“Black Notes Project is a beautiful conglomeration of folks,” he said. “You have people who come from the classical side of things. You have the Charlotte Strings Collective, which represents all walks of musical life. And then you have a rhythm section. All these folks together represent the full spectrum of Charlotte’s music scene.”


(Philip Biedenbender)

Leaders of The Sol Kitchen, a Black and Veteran-owned live music production and promotion company that spotlights BIPOC artists, approached Biedenbender about getting involved in the festival. He was enthusiastic about being part of something that’s opening more doors – for musicians and audiences.

The Charlotte Strings Collective, which has been performing in and around Charlotte for several years, is the foundation of the ensemble. Horn players, a keyboardist and percussionists have been added to achieve the sound of R&B groups like The Gap Band and The Isley Brothers.

Meant to move
The audience will hear songs they know and love arranged in a way that makes them sound entirely new. “It’s definitely a good introduction [to classical sounds] for a lot of people,” Biedenbender said. “You’ll get to the core of what music is supposed to be about: human connection and enjoyment.”


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Both he and Johnson said that if people are moved to dance at their concert, that will be welcomed by the musicians. We’re meant to move to music, Biedenbender said. “That’s the purest expression of what music can be. It should be experienced and felt – not just listened to.”

Both the violist and the conductor look forward to introducing audiences to something new. And if people are inclined to seek out more classical music as a result, all the better. “We have the platform and the ability,” Johnson said. “I think it’s important that we capitalize on this opportunity to educate and inform.”

Biedenbender agrees: “I taught school for four years, and music education is very important to me. I enjoy getting people comfortable with things they’re not immediately comfortable with. I encourage people to listen to something different. You’ll come out of it a better person with more knowledge and more compassion for those around you.”

He added, in reference to the home football team’s disappointing season, “Charlotte is a very sports-centric community. If we could become a little more arts-centric, I think people would find that fulfilling because they wouldn’t be worried about a 2 and 12 record. You come out of every concert entertained and excited.”

More Info for Black Notes Project
Two-Day Indoor Music Festival

Black Notes Project

Two-Day Indoor Music Festival
Jan 26 - 27, 2024