Even as a high school student in South Carolina, Jonathon Heyward dreamed of leading an American orchestra. He wanted to make concerts “more welcoming and homey” and “a fun and enjoying experience for both the musicians on stage and the audience below.”
Thirteen years later, Heyward’s goals haven’t changed. On Monday night, he told an audience of music lovers at Joseph C. Meyerhoff Symphony Hall how he plans to achieve those aims during his inaugural season as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
Over the course of Heyward’s five-year contract, which begins in September, music lovers can expect to see a renewed emphasis on opera in a city that for more than a decade has largely gone without that art form; more BSO musicians getting a chance to shine as soloists — coveted roles that in the past would have gone to visiting stars; and new collaborations with Baltimore composers and musicians, from hip-hop artist Wordsmith (Anthony Parker) to Morgan State University professor James Lee III, a noted orchestral, choral and band composer.
His final — and arguably most significant focus — is a slate of new community outreach programs that Heyward likens to “performing music at people’s back doors.”
When Heyward officially takes the BSO’s podium, he is poised to become the only Black American conductor of one of the two dozen biggest-budget U.S. symphonies. And at age 31, he also will be the youngest.
His new gig, he said recently, “is a wonderful opportunity to sincerely connect with the people of Baltimore and encourage greater access to this amazing art form that we all love.”
Music, dance, opera and conversations
Details of some of the more ambitious aspects of the community programs will be announced over the next several weeks, but Heyward hinted that they will include a new college campus series that will take the BSO to universities throughout the region, as well as a debut partnership with the Baltimore School for the Arts that will focus on mentorship and education in an effort to develop a pipeline for minority musicians into the orchestral industry nationwide, according to preliminary information released by the BSO.
A 2016 poll by the League of American Orchestras found that just 1.8% of musicians in classical orchestras were African American. But 53% of the teenage students at School for the Arts are Black and an additional 10% are other minorities, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Heyward said he hopes to demystify classical music with a program that resembles the innovative “Off the Cuff” series created by music director laureate Marin Alsop. Called “Casual Conversations,” it will have a similar format as the previous version: one work of music preceded by a discussion packaged into a relatively short concert with no intermission.
But unlike “Off the Cuff,” the new program will not involve a lecture; instead it will be a discussion among several guest artists. Heyward will lead two of these programs; the leader of the third has not been announced.
“I am looking forward to pinpointing the relatability of classical music to everyday life,” Heyward said, “maybe even discussing how these pieces are relevant to jazz or popular music.”
The 2023-24 season opens Sept. 22 at the Music Center of Strathmore in North Bethesda by celebrating two art forms: dance and music. Heyward will conduct a new commission by jazz great Wynton Marsalis called “Herald, Holler and Hallelujah.” The inaugural concerts will be accompanied by a world premiere performance by the renowned Dance Theatre of Harlem.
The BSO’s annual gala will be held the next night at the Meyerhoff in Baltimore, and on Sunday, Sept. 24, Heyward will lead the symphony in a free public performance celebrating the return of Artscape.
“One of my goals is to infuse multidisciplinary arts into our programs,” Heyward said, “Dance, poetry and everything this rich city has to offer.”
‘People are hungry for it’
Next season also will feature two performances of Carl Orff’s monumental “Carmina Burana,” a cantata, or a piece of music for singers and an orchestra that tells a story. The cantata will be performed March 16-17, 2024, and will feature a soprano, tenor and baritone.
In addition, soprano Christine Goerke will be the BSO’s artist-in-residence next season. She will perform on stage in three programs featuring the music of composers Richard Wagner, Johann Strauss and Samuel Barber, and will conduct master classes for aspiring vocalists.
Heyward became smitten with opera while he was in graduate school. During an interview earlier this year in his native South Carolina, he said that in 10 years he hopes to be in a city where he can be music director for both an orchestra and an opera company.
“As a conductor, you get so many rewards from both art forms,” he said. “I would hate to miss out on either one of them.”
Baltimore has not had a major classical opera since The Baltimore Opera Company declared bankruptcy in 2009 and liquidated, though a trio of small companies have been admirably attempting to fill that gap.
Still, neither Heyward nor the BSO is ruling out the possibility that he could fulfill that particular career goal in Baltimore.
“There is a very clear recognition on our part that we have to invest in opera as an art form,” said Matthew L. Feldman, the BSO’s senior director of artistic planning, earlier this year.
“People here are hungry for it.”
‘Classical music can transcend boundaries’
Next season also will feature visiting big-name instrumental soloists: established piano virtuosos Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Emanuel Ax, and the Dutch violinist Simone Lamsma, a rising star.
Sharing that front-of-stage spotlight also will be homegrown talent. Four BSO musicians will get a chance next season to tackle prestigious and challenging soloist roles: concertmaster Jonathan Carney, clarinetist YaoGuang Zhai, oboist Katherine Needleman and trumpeter Andrew Balio.
“It’s important to Jonathon and me to highlight the great orchestra we have right here,” BSO President and CEO Mark C. Hanson said. “I am looking forward to celebrating our artists by putting them front and center throughout each season.”
Heyward and Hanson made it clear that in addition to accentuating musicians on their roster, they also want to introduce audiences to local talent who typically perform on other stages.
Two immediate examples are Lee and Wordsmith.
Not only will Lee create a world premiere for the BSO next season, but the year after that he has been appointed as the symphony’s composer-in-residence. And in February 2024, the BSO will perform Wordsmith’s “Jazzing the Symphony,” a composition focusing on the musical contributions of such Baltimore jazz pioneers as Eubie Blake, Cab Calloway, Noble Sissle and Billie Holiday.
Alsop will conduct two programs next season, and James Conlon, who stepped in as the BSO’s interim artistic adviser, will conduct three.
Other highlights of the musical lineup include Heyward conducting Gustav Mahler’s Sixth Symphony and three free public “Symphony in the City” concerts held outside the BSO’s traditional performing halls.
The popular BSO Fusion series, which presents hip-hop, pop and rock music alongside classical standards, is expanding for the first time to Strathmore Hall under the helm of series creator, Steve Hackman.
Finally, the popular Film with Orchestra concerts are being packaged for the first time as a stand-alone, three-concert series. Concertgoers can watch such favorite flicks as “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” “Back to the Future” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” on a large screen while the full orchestra plays the score in real time.
For full details of the 2023-24 season and to order tickets, go to bsomusic.org.
“Classical music can transcend boundaries,” Heyward said. “My goal is to get people to realize in a very short time that we share this beautiful common ground. We’ll get there. I have no doubt about that.”