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.

That is going to change. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra announced on Thursday that it had chosen Jonathon Heyward, a rising African American conductor, as its next music director. He will begin a five-year contract in Baltimore at the start of the 2023-24 season.

Heyward, 29, who grew up in Charleston, S.C., 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 that he would work to expand the audience for classical music by bolstering 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-tier American orchestra, whose tenure in Baltimore ended last year. His appointment comes amid a broader reckoning in classical music over severe gender and racial disparities.

The choice to hire Heyward is a milestone for Baltimore, where Black residents make up more than 60 percent of the population.

“We are inspired by his artistry, passion and vision for the B.S.O., as well as for what his appointment means for budding musicians who will see themselves better reflected in such a position of artistic prominence,” Mark Hanson, the orchestra’s president and chief executive, said in a statement.

Heyward, who is the chief conductor of the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie in Germany, has garnered a reputation as a sensitive and charismatic conductor. His appointment comes at a challenging time for orchestras, with many ensembles, including Baltimore’s, struggling to win back arts patrons because of the pandemic — a crisis that has exacerbated long-term declines in ticket sales and forced arts groups to look for new ways to reach audiences, including through livestreaming.

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

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

“It’s simply a knack of being able to really understand what the community needs and listening to what the community needs and then being able to get them in the door,” he said.

Although Heyward has been based in Europe for much of his career, he has started to appear more frequently in the United States. Last spring, he led 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 scheduled to appear with the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra at Lincoln Center in early August, leading a program that features the violinist Joshua Bell.

In 2017, when Heyward was 25, he was widely praised for a series of performances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, when he substituted at the last minute for an ill conductor. That program included a premiere by the 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 sensitive collaborator in service to the music,” the critic Rick Schultz wrote in The Los Angeles Times.

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

With turnover expected soon at several major orchestras, there are signs of change. This season, Nathalie Stutzmann takes the podium at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. She will be only the second woman to lead a top-tier American orchestra.

Heyward will also be among the Baltimore Symphony’s youngest leaders. He began studying cello at 10. A graduate of the Boston Conservatory, he later served as an assistant conductor of the Hallé Orchestra in England, under its longtime music director, Mark Elder.

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

“If a 10-year-old boy from Charleston, South Carolina, with no music education background, with no musicians in the family, can be enamored 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 many, many ways.”

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