Jonathon Heyward set to debut as first Black music director of Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on Sept. 23

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By Aria Brent,
AFRO Staff Writer,

Jonathon Heyward will make history as the first Black and youngest person to ever lead the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra next month. 

Heyward will step into the role of BSO music director on Sep. 23 at the 2023 Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Gala.

To celebrate Heyward’s five-year tenure and the opening of the BSO’s season a three-day celebration has been planned. On Sept. 22, a concert will be given at one of the BSO’s year-round locations, the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda, Md. The BSO Gala will take place at the organization’s other year-round home, the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. That event will include performances by both BSO musicians and the Dance Theatre of Harlem and serve as Heyward’s official debut. Community members can also enjoy a BSO concert at Artscape on September 24.

Heyward spoke with the AFRO about his programming goals as BSO music director and how he will welcome the entire community into the classical music space.

“What I strive to do in our programming is make what we put on stage relatable. It starts with deepening our roots within the community to understand what they need from Maryland’s biggest arts organization, which is the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra,” Heyward said.

He further explained that, since being named the musical director of the BSO, he’s spent the last year looking into the local talent in the Baltimore area so that he can provide them with opportunities to present their talents in John Meyerhoff Hall, which Heyward referred to as “The Hall for All.” 

“The Meyerhoff is a concert hall for everyone. Putting our money where our mouth is, is really important as to how we go about that and making sure that we program for the community is a crucial part of my vision, goals and aspirations for the orchestra,” said Heyward.  

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO) is making space for the current Black talent that Charm CIty has to offer, all the while helping develop the next generation of musicians. 

Earlier this summer, the BSO partnered with local singer and activist Lea Gilmore for an event during Black Music Month in June. Gilmore spoke with the AFRO about her performance and discussed the importance of introducing and amplifying Black talent in artistic spaces that are not viewed as traditionally Black. 

“It’s important to the community that the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra be in the community,” stated Gilmore. “We decided this [was] the perfect opportunity to celebrate a holiday we’ve worked so hard for, and to really recognize the incredible importance of African-American music, song and spoken word.”

Gilmore further discussed how important music is to Black history and culture, while also noting that the contributions Black people have made to classical music is equally as important. 

“We really are a people that have had a soundtrack to our existence– it’s just a part of our being,” exclaimed Gilmore. “We pass music down from one person to the other, and from community to community.”

“It’s important that people realize there are some wonderful classical composers who are African American, and who have contributed to the history of this music,” said Gilmore.

BSO’s OrchKids program is focused on exposing the next generation of great musicians to classical instrumental music and helping them find their place in the world of symphonic music. The program is currently in seven schools in the Baltimore area. 

“OrchKids was founded by former BSO director Marin Alsop in 2008 and she had this goal to use music as a vehicle to help students develop transferable music and social skills,” explained Devin Harrington, associate director of programs at OrchKids. 

Harrington has been with OrchKids for three years and shared that part of his motivation for the work he does is remembering what it was like being one of the few people of color in a classical music space growing up. 

“I always felt like I was going into another world when I entered the doors to the Baltimore School for the Performing Arts,” recalled Harrington. “My household and neighborhood were so different from this place I was getting lessons at. It’s very important that our Black students be exposed to classical music because they need to know and understand that they belong.”

Much like Harrington, Heyward wants for classical music to feel like home for Black people. 

“I love this art form. I think it’s one of the most powerful and visceral art forms that you can experience and I think it truly is for everyone. I hope that people see my involvement as an artistic leader in an organization like this and realize that it really can be for everyone. That’s a huge responsibility that I don’t take very lightly,” said Heyward. “Artistic output of what we do really is indicative of making sure that everyone feels comfortable and feels at home coming to a symphonic performance.”

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Written by: Soft FM Radio Staff

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