ORCHESTRATED is a feature documentary about the first full-time African American symphony orchestra, the Negro Symphony Orchestra (NSO), and its legacy in the context of a century-long Black struggle for an equal place in classical music.
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 follows NYU professor, pianist, podcaster, and BLM activist Kyle P. Walker as he teams up with British conductor Alex Walker to examine the Orchestra’s archival traces and its foundational ideas from Harlem Renaissance thinkers like James Weldon Johnson, Alain Locke, and composer William Grant Still. He stages a historic first live performance of the “New World Suite” written for the NSO by its unlikely music director, Polish-Jewish refugee Ignatz Waghalter, with an orchestra of color. Kyle’s quiet but infectious charisma and an unflinching sense of purpose drive this project: “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.”
In the early 20th century, most conservatories, major orchestras, and opera companies were racially segregated. Black composers and musicians made their mark in vaudeville, musical theater, and jazz. A Black orchestra would show that African Americans could play “serious music” and were owed this cultural heritage as the full measure of humanity and citizenship in a democratic society.
ORCHESTRATED unwraps the NSO’s story and asks why it has been ignored, and what it meant for its members and for Black music in America. Tested by white elitism and the pressures of WWII, the organization began to fall apart as it was planning a Carnegie Hall debut and a European tour late in 1939, but its legacy is unparalleled.
Classical music is ready for its closeup right now. Shortlisted for the 2024 Academy Awards, Netflix film AMERICAN SYMPHONY (dir. Matthew Heineman), about Jon Batiste and his wife, author Suleika Jaouad, proved that a classical music documentary can find a broad audience. Recent narrative features such as MAESTRO (dir. Bradley Cooper), TÁR (dir. Todd Field), SHE CAME TO ME (dir. Rebecca Miller), and the upcoming Maria Callas movie directed by Pablo Larraín have found wide acclaim.
ORCHESTRATED seeks to unlock the unjustly forgotten story of the Negro Symphony Orchestra and its legacy obscured by discrimination that continues to permeate the classical music world. After nearly three years of archival research and outreach to characters with fading memories, with the support from Lincoln Center, Leontyne Price, Sphinx Organization, and Still’s granddaughter, Celeste Headlee, the ORCHESTRATED team is uniquely positioned to tell this urgent story in the fight for diversity, equity, and inclusion in classical music today.