Baltimore Symphony’s new conductor breaks a racial barrier

For decades, the 25 largest orchestras in the United States have been led almost exclusively by white men.

This will change. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra announced Thursday that it has selected Jonathon Heyward, a rising African-American conductor, as its next music director. He will begin a five-year contract at Baltimore at the start of the 2023-24 season.

Heyward, 29, who grew up in Charleston, SC, the son of an African-American father and a white mother, will be the first person of color to lead the orchestra in its 106-year history. In an interview, he said he would work to broaden the audience for classical music by strengthening education efforts and promoting underrepresented artists.

“This art form is for everyone,” he said.

Heyward will succeed Marin Alsop, the first female music director of a top US orchestra, whose tenure in Baltimore ended last year. His appointment comes amid a broader recognition in classical music of serious gender and racial disparities.

The choice to hire Heyward is an important step for Baltimore, where black residents make up more than 60% of the population.

“We are inspired by his artistry, passion and vision for the BSO, and what his appointment means for aspiring musicians who will see themselves better reflected in such a position of artistic prominence,” said Mark Hanson, President and CEO of the Orchestra. , said in a statement.

Heyward, who is the conductor of the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie in Germany, has earned a reputation as a sensitive and charismatic conductor. His appointment comes at a difficult time for orchestras, with many ensembles including Baltimore struggling to win back arts patrons due to the pandemic – a crisis that has exacerbated the long-term decline in ticket sales and forced arts groups to look for new ways to reach audiences, including through live streaming.

The Baltimore Symphony recently announced it would cut 10 concerts from its upcoming season at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, its longtime home, amid lukewarm ticket sales. Attendance in Baltimore during the 2021-22 season averaged 40% of capacity, down from 62% in 2018-19.

Heyward said he was confident audiences would eventually return, and added that he would work to make the orchestra more accessible by programming a wider variety of work, featuring a greater diversity of performers and moving some away. concerts in traditional venues.

“It’s just a talent to be able to really understand what the community needs and listen to what the community needs and then be able to bring them in,” he said.

Although Heyward was based in Europe for much of his career, he began to appear more frequently in the United States. Last spring, he conducted several concerts in Baltimore, including the orchestra’s first performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15, as well as a benefit concert for Ukraine. He is due to perform with the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra at Lincoln Center in early August, leading a program featuring violinist Joshua Bell.

In 2017, when Heyward was 25, he was widely praised for a string of performances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, when he replaced a poor conductor at the last minute. This program included a creation by composer Tania León, as well as works by Stravinsky, Glinka and Leonard Bernstein.

“He knew when to lead and when to follow, effortlessly balancing his roles as a natural showman and a sensitive collaborator in the service of music,” critic Rick Schultz wrote in the Los Angeles Times.

The field of conducting has long struggled with a lack of diversity. In recent years, there has been only one black music director at the top of American orchestras, and only a handful of conductors have been Latino or of Asian descent.

With sales expected soon in several major orchestras, there are signs of change. This season, Nathalie Stutzmann is on the podium of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. She will only be the second woman to conduct a leading American orchestra.

Heyward will also be among the Baltimore Symphony’s youngest leaders. He started studying the cello at age 10. A graduate of the Boston Conservatory, he went on to serve as assistant conductor of the Hallé Orchestra in England, under the direction of its long-time music director, Mark Elder.

Heyward said his own experience of falling in love with classical music convinced him of its enduring appeal.

“If a 10-year-old boy from Charleston, South Carolina, with no musical training, no musicians in the family, can be seduced and amazed by this, by the best art form there is – classical music – then I think anyone can,” he said. “I plan on trying to prove that in so many, many ways.”

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