With Baltimore caught up in a cacophony of conflicts over the quality of its public schools, the safety of its streets, a shrinking population and what to do about young Black men squeegeeing car windshields for tips, how delightful to hear that the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has named Jonathon Heyward as its next music director. Mr. Heyward, 29, will likely be the only Black American conductor to lead a major U.S. symphony when he takes over the BSO post in the fall of next year. The appointment of this talented young person, who credits public school instruction in his native South Carolina for introducing him to the joys of classical music, poses all sorts of opportunities for the BSO — from broadening and diversifying its aging subscriber base to creating programs that will be not only artistically ambitious but perhaps more relevant to the majority of city residents.
That the BSO finds itself thinking outside the box on artistic leadership comes as no big surprise. The hiring of Mr. Heyward’s predecessor, Marin Alsop, was also groundbreaking, as the McArthur Fellowship (aka the “genius grant”) recipient was the first woman to hold such a role with a major U.S. symphony. And she proved much more than a breaker of glass ceilings — improving both the sound and the reach of the BSO despite a tenures that included a challenging financial environment capped off with a pandemic.
The hiring of Mark C. Hanson as the BSO’s president and chief executive officer earlier this year also strongly suggested that innovations would continue given his record in San Francisco and elsewhere. At the time of his hiring in April, Mr. Hanson pledged a new music director would commit to “broad audience engagement.” The biggest shock is that he was able to act so quickly to secure Mr. Heyward’s services for the next five years.
The BSO faces many challenges, of course. Two weeks ago, Mr. Hanson announced cancellation of 10 out of 91 concert dates next season at Baltimore’s Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, a cost-cutting response to this season’s attendance decline. Like other artistic organizations in Maryland and beyond, the BSO is still struggling with the lingering threat of COVID-19 and the understandable reluctance of older and potentially health-compromised concertgoers to gather in crowds. But there is also a long-term challenge of drawing patrons to the Meyerhoff as Baltimore continues to lose residents and gun violence makes daily headlines.
The recent performance by the poet known as Wordsmith who recited selections from abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” to music played by the BSO during Baltimore’s own Independence Day celebration hints at some potential opportunities in the future. It is equally thrilling to imagine the heightened relevance the Baltimore Symphony may now have for city schoolchildren growing up in households of modest means (just like Mr. Heyward) encountering classical music for the first time in programs like BSO OrchKids, which Ms. Alsop launched with part of her MacArthur award and today provides free musical education, instruments and mentorship in eight city public schools.
Make no mistake, the BSO’s continued health, financial and artistic, is vital to Baltimore. How does one reinvent a city so that it is attractive to the young, tech-savvy workforce of the 21st century looking for a high-energy, high quality place to live? Nurturing the arts and capitalizing on resources like the BSO, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Walters Art Museum and many other historic cultural institutions unique within Maryland is clearly part of that formula, along with exposing young people to fine role models.
Sharp-eared BSO regulars have already heard Mr. Heyward at work. He was guest conductor earlier this year for a BSO concert that raised $40,000 to aid Ukranians, which won good notices, including from the musicians themselves. Next month, he is set to conduct at Lincoln Center with superstar violinist Joshua Bell. Not too shabby for the son of a diner chef and a server in Charleston. And maybe perfect for Baltimore at this moment in time.
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