About The Film

ORCHESTRATED is a feature documentary about the first all-Black symphony orchestra in the United States—the Negro Symphony Orchestra (NSO), founded in 1930s. Under the leadership of Harlem’s leading activists and thinkers, this virtually unknown project brought together over a hundred classically trained African American musicians. Their efforts and dreams were to culminate with a debut at Carnegie Hall in 1939 followed by a European tour, but never did. Why?

ORCHESTRATED begins with a discovery—a handwritten symphonic score from the 1930s abandoned in an attic. Alex Walker, an inquisitive conductor at the Royal Academy of Music in London, leafs through the coffee-stained pages and realizes that the symphony is some of the best orchestral music he’s ever heard. Titled the “New World Suite,” it was composed by Ignatz Waghalter, a Polish-Jewish conductor and a refugee from Nazi Germany. Waghalter had written the suite for the NSO, which was comprised entirely of African American classical musicians.

Alex sends Kyle his recording of the suite. Kyle, who has a thing for bygone composers, loves it and wants to learn more about the NSO and Waghalter. But all Alex knows is that in 1939, at the outbreak of WW2, the orchestra had folded, effectively ending the careers of over hundred Black virtuosi. This frustrating lack of historical record leads both men to the same question: What’s the story behind the NSO and what led to its dissolution?

Undaunted, Kyle sets out to find the answers with his quiet but infectious charisma and an unflinching sense of purpose: “The world needs to know how radical the Negro Symphony Orchestra was. In an age when a Black musician practically had to be a freak of nature to appear with white musicians for paying white audiences, these people were trying to fill a whole orchestra with Black musicians. And yet, no one knows about this.”

But research proves to be a challenge. Kyle bumps against incomplete archives, interviews turned down, dead-end leads. To track down the descendants of the Orchestra members, he hires a private investigator who deadpans, “I’ve never looked for people this dead before.” In his arduous research, every scan, faded photograph, and address bring him closer to piecing together the story that involves William Grant Still, author James Weldon Johnson, tenor Leviticus Lyon, first (Black) woman concertmaster Mildred Franklin; first Black conductor of a white orchestra, A. Jack Thomas, and many more. The emerging tale of hustle, determination, and reached —and shattered —dreams, falls in and out of the historical oblivion.

Throughout the film, Kyle has enlightening and difficult conversations with musicologists and historians of Black classical musicianship. He engages authors, activists, radio hosts, and iconic classical musicians to discuss what has changed in the classical music world of today and whether Black musicians finally have equality on the symphonic stage. Have the rules of access changed? Or does the shadow of “Jim Crow” America still loom large? As the puzzle slowly fills in, it becomes obvious that the impact of the NSO on the future of Black classical musicianship is undeniable. It produced professional musicians, civil rights activists, and women leaders who went on to spearhead other progressive projects.

For the final—and cathartic—story beat, Kyle learns that the NSO was supposed to have its debut in 1939, performing the “New World Suite” at Carnegie Hall. What if, somehow, a performance of the “New World Suite” could be staged at Carnegie Hall, just as Waghalter and the NSO had intended? Backed by Alex Walker, Kyle sets out to gather a diverse ensemble of classical talent to bring the story full circle and finish the project that stood no chance at flourishing in its time.


Music is called a “universal language,” but the stage door has not always been open to anyone who can play. A 2023 study by the League of American Orchestras reveals that only 2.4% of orchestral musicians and 6.7% of conductors in the U.S. are African Americans, who make up 13.6% of the population at large. Only in 2021—nearly a century after the Metropolitan Opera rejected a proposal to find a Black soprano for Verdi’s “Aida”—has an opera by a Black composer embedded in African American musical heritage made it to the Met: Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones.”

ORCHESTRATED unwraps the Negro Symphony Orchestra’s story, asks why it has been ignored, and dissects discrimination that continues to permeate the classical music world.