Arts & Culture

BSO Names Jonathon Heyward as Music Director

The 29-year-old South Carolina native will be the first conductor of color in the orchestra’s history.

When Maestra Marin Alsop announced her retirement in early 2020, music lovers throughout Baltimore let out a collective sigh of dismay.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra had just overcome a series of contentious contract negotiations that included protests and a lockout, and the departure of Alsop after a 14-year tenure would bring forth additional uncertainty for the future of the city’s beloved, 106-year-old symphony.

Now, just shy of a year since Alsop handed in her baton, the BSO has announced the appointment of her replacement, Jonathon Heyward, who, beginning with the 2023-2024 season, will take over as the orchestra’s 13th music director.

A familiar face for concertgoers who attended the symphony this spring, Heyward conducted three performances at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in March 2022, including the orchestra’s first-ever performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15. He then returned to lead a Benefit Concert for Ukraine in April, which helped raise $40,000 for the war-torn country.

In both cases, the audience members delighted to Heyward’s charisma and abundant musicality.

“It is a tremendous honor to join the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at this exciting time in its long and distinguished history,” Heyward said in a press release upon the announcement Thursday morning.

As the son of an African-American father and a white mother, the South Carolina native will be the first conductor of color in the BSO’s history, as well as the only African-American conductor currently leading a major U.S. symphony orchestra—and only the second in the country’s history. He arrives with many international accolades to boot.

Heyward began his musical training as a cellist at age 10, eventually studying at the Boston Conservatory of Music, where he became assistant conductor of the school’s opera department and of the Boston Opera Collaborative.

He later studied at London’s Royal Academy of Music and was appointed assistant conductor of the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester, England. He currently serves as the chief conductor of the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie in Germany. Last year, he led the National Symphony Youth Orchestra of Great Britain during its debut at the prestigious BBC Proms.

For the BSO search committee—made up of musicians, staff, and community members—his selection was unanimous. Not only will he bring a prestigious resume, but the average age of American conductors is 56, making the 29-year-old also the youngest head of a major U.S. symphony. For several years, the BSO has been striving to reach younger and more diverse audiences through its programming. According to The Baltimore Sun, Heyward has also expressed appreciation for the orchestra’s educational outreach, particularly through OrchKids—the musical education program for Baltimore City Public Schools students which Alsop founded in 2008.

“Magic struck when Jonathon took the stage in March, and the chemistry between him and the orchestra was apparent from his first moments on the podium,” said percussionist Brian Prechtl, chair of the BSO Players’ Committee, in this morning’s press release. “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.”

Heyward’s five-year contract will begin next fall, but effective immediately, he will take over as the music director designate, returning next May for two weekends of concert performances. Next month, he will also conduct the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra at the Lincoln Center in New York City.