At precisely 8:03 p.m. Saturday, Jonathon Heyward bounded across the stage of the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in a new pair of his beloved black Converse sneakers, jumped onto the podium, turned to face the orchestra, raised his arms — and officially became larger than life.
Heyward took over as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s 13th music director this weekend after performing three concerts in two counties over three days for roughly 5,000 people, including Maryland’s governor and first lady.
At 31, he is the youngest music director among those leading the two dozen U.S. orchestras with the biggest budgets. He is the only American. And he is the only conductor in that group who is Black.
“History is being made right here, right now, here in Baltimore,” Mark C. Hanson, CEO of the BSO, told the crowd Saturday.
The BSO hosted a two-day gala to celebrate the event at both of the symphony’s performing homes: The Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda on Friday and the Meyerhoff in Baltimore on Saturday. The weekend culminated Sunday in a free community concert as part of Artscape.
“It takes a village — it takes a community for a musical and artistic movement to begin,” Heyward told the audience on Saturday.
“Since I was announced as your music director of this fantastic symphony orchestra, the amount of support that my wife and I have received means a lot to me. I cannot wait to see what the next five years have in store for us all,” he said.
Just how big a deal was Heyward’s debut?
The Baltimore-born, Tony Award-winning actor André De Shields chose to attend the gala instead of the opening night of the Broadway revival of “The Wiz,” even though he originated the role of the Wizard of Oz in the 1975 Broadway production.
De Shields said that “The Wiz” already has a well-established, 50-year legacy. He came to the Meyerhoff to witness a new milestone in Black America’s cultural history in Heyward’s rise to the podium.
The actor noted that Heyward decided to share the stage with eight members of the Dance Theatre of Harlem. The dancers twirling across the stage to Adolphus Hailstork III’s “Symphony No. 1″ were so mesmerizing they threatened to divert the audience’s attention from Heyward’s presence.
“That’s what a leader does,” De Shields said. “When it is his turn in the spotlight, he shines it on someone else.”
Other attendees included former U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski and her longtime legislative partner, U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, and the heads of both legislative bodies in the General Assembly, Senate President Bill Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones.
During prerecorded remarks delivered during the gala, Gov. Wes Moore noted that the BSO’s commitment to diversity and inclusion didn’t stop with Heyward’s appointment.
Thirty-five percent of the BSO’s board members are female, Moore said, and 27% are Black, indigenous or people of color.
“This gala is all about celebrating the incredible talent of the BSO,” First Lady Dawn Flythe Moore said, “and it’s about the values and initiatives that make the orchestra a true beacon of inspiration.”
Heyward programmed 90 minutes of orchestral dances for his debut, partly because dance music is celebratory by nature. But the music director told The Baltimore Sun that he also wanted to provide a sneak preview of what audiences can expect to find in future concerts.
“All of the elements that audiences will see later in the season were here tonight,” Heyward said.
Those elements include positioning the BSO as a statewide cultural resource — and presumably an asset worthy of generous public funding — instead of as an exclusively local asset.
For the first time, the BSO opened its 2023-24 season at Strathmore instead of in Baltimore, and also for the first time in the orchestra’s history, the state’s governor and first lady served as the gala’s honorary chairs.
“The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra isn’t just Baltimore’s orchestra,” Hanson said. “It’s Maryland’s orchestra. And this,” he said, gesturing around the Meyerhoff auditorium, “is a hall for all.”
Heyward’s priorities include future partnerships with other national and local organizations across artistic genres. Trombonist Jeremy Buckler noted that it’s “pretty unusual” for a dance troupe to be invited to perform at a concert celebrating a symphony’s new music director.
But he added that watching the dancers perform to Johannes Sebastian Bach’s “Violin Concerto No. 1 in A Minor” deepened his own understanding of the 18th century masterpiece.
Heyward’s priorities include elevating contemporary and under-performed classical composers, particularly composers of color. The eight musical selections the orchestra performed during its main program included two by Black Americans: Hailstork and Florence Price.
Heyward is also dedicated to nurturing young talent. He has said he wouldn’t be where he is today if it hadn’t been for the music instruction he received at public schools in his native South Carolina.
Two youth ensembles performed at the gala under Heyward’s direction: the Baltimore Symphony Youth Orchestra and OrchKids, a BSO program that seeks to use music instruction in low-income schools to bring about social change.
The youngsters appeared to enjoy the standing ovation they received so much after performing a waltz by Dmitri Shostakovich that they didn’t want to leave the stage and had to be gently shooed off by Heyward, who promised, “We’ll invite you back another time.”
Runa Matsushita, a 17-year-old senior at Towson High School, Youth Orchestra member and soloist for Johannes Sebastian Bach’s “Violin Concerto No. 1 in A Minor,” said she had been nervous about performing on the Meyerhoff stage in front of the celebrity-packed audience. But rehearsing with Heyward calmed her jitters.
“He’s so concise and clear about about what he wants that it’s easy to follow his vision,” she said, “but he’s also very kind. His comments on my playing were constructive, and he always found something positive to mention.”
Barry Rosen, chairman of the BSO’s board of directors, told The Sun that donations have gone up since Heyward’s appointment, though he didn’t know immediately by how much.
In addition, ticket sales for the 2023-24 season increased 9%, and subscriptions are up 6%, Hanson said. That might not sound like a lot, but what makes the last statistic especially significant is that it appears to buck the trend.
Performing groups nationwide from orchestras to theater troupes have reported that season tickets in particular have plummeted since the coronavirus pandemic rocked audience members’ faith in their ability to plan ahead.
Aubrey Foard, a tuba player for the BSO, predicted in a pre-recorded video that Heyward has the potential to “really put us back on the map in a way that is totally unique to any other orchestra in the country.”
Those are hefty expectations to place on any music director’s shoulders. But Heyward said he isn’t intimidated.
“I’m not terrified at all,” he said. “I’m very excited.
“This isn’t about me at all. This is about the work we will do together. No matter how hard you try, it’s never enough of course. But we’re ready to move to the next level.”