New Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conductor breaks racial barrier

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

This will change. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra announced Thursday that it has chosen Jonathon Heyward, the up-and-coming African American conductor, as its new musical director. He will begin a five-year contract in Baltimore at the start of the 2023-24 season.

Hayward, 29, who grew up in Charleston and is 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 expand the audience for classical music by strengthening education efforts and promoting underrepresented artists.

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

Hayward will succeed Marin Allsopp, the first female director of music for a first-class American orchestra, whose tenure in Baltimore expired last year. His appointment comes amid a broader reckoning in classical music about extreme gender and racial disparities.

Heyward’s hiring choice is a milestone in Baltimore, where the black population makes up more than 60 percent of the population.

“His art, passion and vision for BSO, as well as what his appointment means to emerging musicians who will see themselves best reflected in such an outstanding artistic position, have inspired us,” Mark Hanson, Orchestra President and CEO, said in a statement.

Heyward, the conductor of Germany’s Nordwest Deutsche Philharmonic, has developed a reputation as a sensitive and charismatic conductor. His appointment comes at a difficult time for the orchestra, as many bands, including the Baltimore Orchestra, are struggling to win back arts patrons due to the pandemic – a crisis that has exacerbated a long-term decline in ticket sales and forced art groups to look for new ways to make it happen. Reach audiences, including through live broadcasts.

The Baltimore Symphony recently announced that it will cut 10 concerts from its upcoming season at the Josef Meyerhof Symphony Hall, its longtime home, amid tepid ticket sales. Attendance in Baltimore during the 2021-22 season averaged 40% of capacity, down from 62% in 2018-2019.

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

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

Although Hayward resided in Europe for most of his career, he began making frequent appearances in the United States. Last spring, he led several concerts in Baltimore, including the orchestra’s first performance in Shostakovich’s 15th Symphony, as well as an instrumental concert for Ukraine. He is scheduled to appear with the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra at Lincoln Center in early August, leading a program featuring violinist Joshua Bell.

In 2017, when Hayward was 25 years old, he was widely praised for a string of performances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, when he was replaced at the last minute by an ailing captain. This program included a first performance by composer Tania Lyon, as well as works by Stravinsky, Glinka, and Leonard Bernstein.

“Knowing when to lead and when to follow,” critic Rick Schultz wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “he easily balances his roles as a natural showman and a sensitive collaborator in the music service.”

The field of leadership has always struggled with a lack of diversity. In recent years, there has been only one black conductor in the upper echelon of the American orchestra, and few conductors have been of Hispanic or Asian descent.

With turnover expected soon in many major bands, there are signs of change. This season, Natalie Stutzman took the podium at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. She will be only the second woman to lead a high-profile US orchestra.

Hayward will also be among the youngest conductors of the Baltimore Symphony. He began studying the cello at the age of ten. A graduate of the Boston Conservatory, he later served as assistant conductor for the Haley Orchestra in England, under the direction of 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 from Charleston, South Carolina, with no educational background in music, and no musicians in the family, could be fascinated and amazed at this, the best art form out there — classical music — then I guess I plan to try,” he said. Prove this in several ways.

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