“Orchestrated: Ignatz Waghalter and the Negro Symphony Orchestra” follows veteran British conductor, Alex Walker, and Kyle P. Walker, an up-and-coming African American classical pianist, as they uncover the remarkable story of one of the first ever all-Black classical symphony orchestras. Created by once-renowned Polish-Jewish conductor Ignatz Waghalter and the icons of Harlem Renaissance, the Negro Symphony Orchestra brought together 120 African American musicians in an unprecedented moment of activism, hope, and collaboration, their story revealing what it takes to overcome racial injustice to make it on the concert stage.
Raised in a Warsaw Jewish family of klezmer musicians with ten siblings who played weddings and circuses, Waghalter made his way at seventeen to the Academy of Arts in Berlin and soon became the founding director of Germany’s second largest opera house, guest conducting all over the world in what constituted an unprecedented career for a Polish Jew – his audacity clashing with ruthless ethnic prejudice along the way. A friend of Puccini and Kurt Weill, Waghalter was a musical populist who believed that classical music belonged to everybody and should not be reserved for elites. So when he was forced to flee Hitler for New York in 1937, he had a very clear vision of public service as the classical musician’s moral duty.
Equally driven, our protagonists, Alex and Kyle take us into the world of unjustly forgotten and marginalized musicians, through seminal musical institutions, historic archives and concert halls from London, Berlin, Warsaw, and New York, to the rural south. Their quest reveals the harsh realities of Waghalter’s immigration and the hardships of starting an African American orchestra in the 1930s: recruiting musicians in Harlem clubs; rehearsing in Waghalter’s Upper West Side apartment and facing eviction; and working with some of the best Black classical violinists and conductors of the era like the NSO’s assistant conductor, Alfred Jack Thomas—a WWI bandmaster who went on to become the first Black conductor of the Baltimore Symphony.
The story reaches its climax with a Carnegie Hall performance of Ignatz Waghalter’s “New World Suite” by a present-day all-Black orchestra as the composer envisioned, representing a triumph for the daring project that defied the norms of era of the Negro Symphony Orchestra, whose own New York concert hall debut never came to pass.
A 2014 study by the League of American Orchestras revealed that only 2% of U.S. orchestral musicians and 4.3% of conductors were Black. Only in 2021—nearly a century after the Metropolitan Opera rejected a proposal to find a Black soprano to sing in Verdi’s “Aida”—has an opera by an African American composer, Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones”, made it to that cathedral of the European classical tradition while at the same time being thoroughly embedded in African American musical heritage. Orchestrated looks at a virtually unknown piece of the story of how we got here, the real players and what they sacrificed, and what has to be done to bring diversity, equity, and inclusion to the profession of classical music.
Waghalter believed deeply that art should serve society and said that “music, the strongest citadel of universal democracy, knows neither color, creed, nor nationality.” This aspiration remains an ideal in today’s classical music landscape.