“Orchestrated” is a feature documentary that follows the unlikely partnership between Harlem Renaissance leaders and Ignatz Waghalter—a Polish-Jewish conductor/composer who made an international career in Berlin and fled to New York City during Hitler’s rise. Together they establish the first standing African American symphony orchestra. Alex Walker, a British conductor with a dry wit and a weakness for forgotten composers—and Kyle P. Walker, an emerging Black pianist, podcaster, and BLM activist with an unflinching sense of purpose, take us inside this remarkable story while examining the racism that continues to haunt classical music today.
“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,” says Kyle. He and Alex resolve to take Waghalter’s New World Suite, written for the Negro Symphony Orchestra, to Carnegie Hall with an all-Black ensemble as intended.
Ignatz Waghalter rose from poverty in a large family of klezmer musicians, muscling his way from the Warsaw Jewish quarter as a teenager into the Berlin Academy of Arts. As founding director of Germany’s second largest opera house—a career unheard of for a Polish Jew in Germany—he used his privilege to advocate for Black tenor Roland Hayes and contralto Marian Anderson in the face of nationalist attacks during their European tours.
Few Black musicians had access to a conservatory education before the 1950s. Symphony auditions weren’t held behind a curtain as they are today, and prejudice was out in the open. The Negro Symphony Orchestra promised a full-time job as a classical musician instead of a precarious existence taking any gig that paid and holding down a day job to make it through the dry spots. The Orchestra’s leaders sought to bring Black musicians, Black music, and Black culture into the halls of the white establishment. It went beyond classical music.
Alex and Kyle take us into the world of these pioneering musicians, through iconic musical institutions, archives, and concert halls from London, Berlin, and Warsaw, to Harlem. They find the families and people who knew the Orchestra members and can tell their stories. Their quest reveals the harsh realities of Waghalter’s immigration and the African American struggle for equality on the concert stage. We learn about some of the best Black classical musicians of the era like conductor Alfred Jack Thomas, tenor Leviticus Lyon, violinist Mildred Franklin Howard, and civil rights activists and cultural leaders such as James Weldon Johnson, Judge James Watson, and Hubert T. Delany – all striving to bring this impossible project to life.
A “desecration, purposefully, of America’s history.” When Lizzo, rap megastar and classically trained flautist, put her lips to James Madison’s crystal flute loaned by the Library of Congress, right-wing activists were apoplectic. No matter that none of them previously knew that Madison owned a flute—the sight of a Black artist twerking while playing a historic instrument was like taking “a dump on the American flag.” Lizzo’s message was “History is cool!” and put archivists in the spotlight. But the conservative tweetstorm that ensued was off the charts, because classical music still has a race problem.
While we’d love to think that the major orchestras and opera companies that make up the classical music establishment have changed since the time of Ignatz Waghalter and the Negro Symphony Orchestra, in 2014, only 1.4% of musicians in American orchestras were Black, and progress is glacially slow. It wasn’t until 2021 that the Metropolitan Opera staged its first opera by an African American composer—Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones.” And Lizzo can send people into a tizzy by picking up a historic flute.
“Orchestrated” reaches its climax with a Carnegie Hall performance of Ignatz Waghalter’s New World Suite by a contemporary all-Black orchestra as the composer dreamed, representing a triumph for the daring project that defied the norms of the era of the Negro Symphony Orchestra, whose own New York concert hall debut never came to pass.