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. The NSO was birthed from the unlikely collaboration of James Weldon Johnson and other Harlem icons, with Ignatz Waghalter, a Polish-Jewish conductor-composer and refugee from Nazi Germany. To tell this story, the film follows an NYU professor, pianist and activist, Kyle P. Walker, as he teams up with British conductor, Alex Walker, investigates the Orchestra’s history and forgotten legacy, finds its living witnesses, and stages a performance of its unfinished work, the “New World Suite”, with a symphony orchestra of color. 

“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. 

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 the Negro Symphony Orchestra, in 2023, only 2.4% of orchestral musicians and 6.7% of conductors in the U.S. 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.” 

ORCHESTRATED reaches its climax with a Carnegie Hall performance of the “New World Suite” by a contemporary all-Black orchestra brought together by Kyle and Alex. The moment represents a triumph for the daring project that defied the norms of the era of the NSO, whose own New York concert hall debut never came to pass. Decades later, it finds its audience.

Writer/ Director: Natalia Iyudin
Director of Photography/ Writer: Bongani Mlambo
Creative Consultant: Ross Kauffman
Writer: David Goldfarb
Producers: Robert Salyer, Kashka Glowacka
Consulting Producers: Adetoro Makinde, Heidi Reinberg
Writer/Head of Research/EP: Ania Perzanowska

Selected Supporters and Partners: The Sphinx Orchestra, Maysles Documentary Center, Lincoln Center, The Jewish Museum; Scholars: Kira Thurman, Carol Oja, Stephanie Doktor, Paul Edwards; The team of Leontyne Price, Polish Cultural Institute New York; Kino Lorber and YIVO.

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