The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has named Jonathon Heyward as its new conductor, the first nonwhite person in the orchestra’s 106-year history to hold that role.
The selection of the 29-year-old conductor is a bold move for the orchestra, which like many around the country needs to attract a younger and more diverse audience.
Michael Shinn, the dean of music at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee, calls Heyward’s selection “historic” and says the BSO should be applauded for its efforts. ”It’s one that I hope other organizations follow,” Shinn said.
Heyward, a graduate of the Boston Conservatory of Music and the chief conductor of the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie in Herford, Germany, signed a five-year contract that will begin in the 2023-2024 season. He was also an assistant conductor of England’s Hallé Orchestra and was selected unanimously by the BSO’s search committee.
The BSO’s last music director, Marin Alsop, was the first woman at a top American orchestra with that title. Her 14-year tenure at the BSO ended last year.
Baltimore got its introduction to Heyward last spring when he led multiple concerts at the Meyerhoff, including a benefit for Ukraine.
“What’s really important to me as a music director is understanding what Baltimore needs from an arts organization,” Heyward said Thursday afternoon. “What I plan on doing is getting to know the people of the community, which I’m really excited to get started doing and understand how do we fit.”
Orchestras across the country are at a crucial crossroads. In addition to the vast majority being headed by white men for the entirety of their existence, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it challenging to retain longtime patrons. The BSO, in particular, recently announced that it would be cutting 10 concerts from its regular Meyerhoff home schedule. The two Friday concert series offerings will be shaved down to a single six-concert series. Having a young, Black music director in a city that is majority Black suggests that the BSO understands a shift is needed in Baltimore’s institutional arts leadership.
It could also be a real shift for Heyward, who has spent the vast majority of his adult life in Europe. But as a kid whose first cello lessons came from a free program in Charleston, South Carolina — where he was raised by an African American father and white mother — he knows the significance of making the BSO more accessible, which has been a consistent critique.
“Even from a really young age, I always saw a music director as an ambassador for music in that city, and when thinking about the different opportunities I was given, Baltimore seemed the most appealing for many reasons,” Heyward said. “First and foremost because of the world class orchestra and secondly because of the population. Of course I understand that my presence here is much more significant than it would be in other cities. It’s a responsibility I don’t take lightly, and it’s something I really hope to harness and develop as I start my tenure here.”
Jeri Lynne Johnson, founder and artistic director of the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra in Philadelphia, understands the weight of having a Black person — in an over 60% Black city — in this kind of role. In 2005, Johnson was selected for the Taki Alsop Conducting Fellowship. The program was founded by Alsop to increase diversity within composing by picking a woman conductor every year to receive training. The same year Johnson won the Taki, Alsop got the job at the BSO.
“When I went out as a music director and made it to the finalist of an orchestra, one gentleman from the search committee just said, ‘You just don’t look like what our audiences expect the maestro to look like,’” Johnson said. That was the impetus for her to begin her own orchestra, and Black Pearl was established in 2008.
Johnson says she’s glad to witness the progression in the BSO’s leadership. “I think a lot of people are beginning to think proactively about what they can do to make change. Not just talk about changes that can be made, but how can they really make those changes a reality to be more inclusive, to create a culture of belonging in classical music to ensure the entire art form remains relevant.”
When asked why there is a dearth of Black conductors in the classical music world, Shinn said the killing of George Floyd was a turning point for the industry as well as for the rest of the country.
”As an industry, we have failed to pursue this,” he said, in reference to efforts to diversify the classical music industry. “It’s amazing that we are now starting to see this change start to filter into the professional world.”
Mark Hanson, CEO of the BSO, hopes Heyward’s appointment will inspire other young musicians. “We are inspired by his artistry, passion and vision for the BSO, as well as for what his appointment means for budding musicians who will see themselves better reflected in such a position of artistic prominence,” he said in a statement.
Andrew Altenbach, associate professor of opera at the Boston Conservatory of Music at Berklee and music director of their opera, taught Heyward while he was a student. He and Heyward often switched chairs to learn some of the nuances of conducting.
“Most importantly, the guy is a workhorse,” Altenbach said. “He’s really dedicated to the music. He has a lot of humility and he’s willing to do the work. I don’t know if it’s conducting, but music, the study and performance, is intoxicating.”
Some of the BSO’s musicians became fans of the young conductor during his time leading concerts at the Meyerhoff last year.
“[The musicians] right then felt a mutual trust because he was really not afraid to listen to us and bring in new ideas,” Chelsea Kim, first violinist, said in a press video.
At least one subscriber is excited for what Heyward could add.
Luke Hall, who attends shows weekly, said Heyward can help make the orchestra more relevant to the broader community. He said the normal traditions of classical music aren’t the only way for it to be enjoyable.
“I’m excited to witness the changes he’ll bring,” Hall said. “I saw him in performance last year and he’s a young Black male with great energy. He really brought the orchestra alive.”
Ben Shaver, a 31-year-old music teacher and classically trained pianist who lives in Pikesville, is also looking forward to what Heyward will bring to the position.
”This city is in desperate need for new, youthful ideas. Someone who can reach the communities that feel less of a connection to classical music,” said Shaver, who also has a degree in vocal performance from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. “For too long, this air of elitism poisoned the genre and alienated lower classes. Now, it is struggling to financially stay afloat and the industry is trying to create ways to get people interested. Sometimes I think it’s too little, too late.”
Heyward’s new post may not fix every challenge that performing arts centers and orchestras face in Baltimore, and the country at large. But he’s keen on the fact that his ability to help mold the next generation of musicians to come out of Baltimore will define his tenure at the BSO.
“What’s incredibly important to me is education and accessibility to music education,” he said. “If I didn’t get the free education I got in Charleston, South Carolina I wouldn’t be here today. So I know the absolute value of having a strong music education.”
Taji Burris contributed to this story.