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Baltimore Symphony Orchestra names Jonathon Heyward music director

The 29-year-old rising star becomes the first person of color to lead the 106-year-old orchestra

Jonathon Heyward was named musical director of Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on Thursday. (Laura Thiesbrummel)

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra announced on Thursday its appointment of 29-year-old Jonathon Heyward as its music director, concluding an extensive search that commenced following the exit last August of its longtime director, Marin Alsop.

Heyward, a Charleston, S.C., native who currently serves as chief conductor for the Herford, Germany-based Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie, will be the BSO’s 13th music director, the first person of color to lead the 106-year-old orchestra, and the youngest music director of a major U.S. orchestra. His five-year tenure will commence with the 2023-2024 season, though he will serve as music director designate for the forthcoming season, leading two weeks of programming in May 2023.

“This is a dream that I’ve had since I was 14 years old,” Heyward said by phone on Thursday. “I remember writing in the school newspaper that what I wanted to do when I grew up was to be a music director of a symphony orchestra. So the anticipation that has come from this, I think ‘awe’ is the way to describe it.”

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Heyward made his debut in March of this year, leading a program that included Hannah Kendall’s “The Spark Catchers,” a run through Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, and the BSO premiere of Shostakovich’s 15th symphony, a performance described by percussionist and Players’ Committee Chair Brian Prechtl as “magic.”

“Jonathon’s unique programming, strong communication skills, and ability to push the orchestra with new ideas demonstrated some of the most important musical traits we’ve been looking for in a music director,” Prechtl wrote in a statement. Heyward has also previously been featured in the BSO’s ongoing digital series “BSO Sessions.”

Originally trained as a cellist starting at the age of 10, Heyward embarked shortly thereafter on his conducting life, when a substitute teacher pulled his name from a hat to lead his school’s orchestra. He has previously served as assistant conductor of the Manchester, England-based Hallé Orchestra, and has made well-received appearances Stateside with the Atlanta, Detroit and San Diego symphony orchestras, with forthcoming debuts in Houston and St. Louis. Heyward made his Wolf Trap debut this month leading the National Symphony Orchestra in a program of Beethoven, Bologne and NSO composer-in-residence, Carlos Simon.

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Mark Hanson, named chief executive of the orchestra in April, heralded the selection of Heyward — unanimous among a search committee made up of BSO musicians, staff and community members — as “incredibly inspirational and aspirational” in a statement.

“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,” Hanson wrote. “At the same time, he is a star on the rise, and his vibrant talent, bold programming, and fervent commitment to community engagement will continue to grow our relationship with the many communities across Maryland.”

The BSO has made its search for a new conductor something of a public affair, with a string of guest conductors stepping in to lead the orchestra over the course of its past two seasons, a presumable short list that included Heyward, Rune Bergmann, Robert Trevino, Kevin John Edusei, Peter Oundjian, Kwamé Ryan, Matthias Pintscher and Christian Reif.

Conductor Christian Reif makes a good guest at the Strathmore

Heyward’s appointment comes at a transformational moment for the orchestra. After weathering budget crises and lockouts in 2019 and the departure of Alsop after her 14 year-tenure as director, the orchestra has brought on new leadership in the form of Hanson, who previously served tenures leading the San Francisco and the Houston Symphony Orchestra, and raised eyebrows with subscribers this month when it canceled 10 forthcoming concert dates at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in an effort to “maximize attendance” and “create room in the schedule for new concerts and partnerships.” (The number of BSO concerts scheduled for its secondary home at Strathmore remains unchanged.)

His hire also comes at a time of cultural change in Baltimore, as a number of the city’s cultural institutions have brought on Black leadership, including Jenenne Whitfield’s recent appointment as director of the American Visionary Art Museum, James D. Thornton’s naming as board chair of the Baltimore Museum of Art, and the Walters Art Museum naming James DeGraffenreidt Jr. as chair of its board. Baltimore’s population is 62 percent black, making Heyward’s appointment not just an indicator of the orchestra’s new direction, but a reflection of the city’s cultural identity.

There’s no secret that the visibility of African American or people of color as leaders in a community where there are mainly African Americans or people of color, that in itself is powerful,” Heyward said, recalling his own feelings after the 2008 election of President Barack Obama. “There is a moment where you look up at a leader and you recognize that, and you see potential.”

Heyward said his primary concern in his new role is increasing the visibility of the orchestra through programming and also through presence. Alsop’s tenure introduced the wildly successful OrchKids program to Baltimore, and Heyward intends to expand similar efforts to bring the BSO and its immediate community more closely together. (In an email on Thursday, Alsop wrote that she is “Thrilled for Jonathon — thrilled for Baltimore!”)

“My biggest challenge to myself is to challenge anyone’s perception that classical music isn’t for them,” Heyward said. “We have this stereotype about classical music that confuses me in a lot of ways. I hope just by being on the podium — 29, half African American, half Eastern European — that maybe that in itself will break boundaries and break the perception that this music is for a particular group of people.”

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