Signaling Change at the Podium

Alum Jonathon Heyward makes history as Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s first music director of color.

January 6, 2023

Alum Jonathon Heyward (B.M. '14, cello) is no stranger to accolades. At 30, he leads the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie as chief conductor and has already made guest appearances with many of the most respected symphony orchestras in the world, including the London Symphony Orchestra and the Atlanta, Detroit, and San Diego symphony orchestras. In 2021, he made a wildly successful debut with the BBC Proms, where he was hailed as “coolly heading for the stratosphere.”

But it seems likely that Heyward’s greatest achievements are yet to come: in July 2022 the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra appointed him as its 13th music director, making him the first person of color to assume this role in the orchestra’s history. Additionally, when he begins his five-year term in 2023, he will be the youngest director of a major American symphony orchestra by more than 10 years.

Growing up in Charleston, South Carolina, Heyward began his classical music journey as a cellist, but he discovered an aptitude and love for the collaborative nature of conducting early on. As a cello student at Boston Conservatory, he studied with Professor of Cello Andrew Mark. Heyward explains, “[Mark] took me on despite knowing I wanted to be a conductor. He knew that I also really strove to be the best cellist I could, to learn about conducting from the orchestra.”

While completing his B.M. in cello at Boston Conservatory, Heyward also studied conducting under Andrew Altenbach, former associate professor of opera, who, Heyward notes, “essentially gave me my first job as assistant conductor to the Opera Department.” Altenbach attributes Heyward’s success to a strong work ethic and a passion for discovering music, recalling Heyward’s “total commitment” and “joyful urgency to absorb as much as he could” while a student. “He took it to heart when he asked me how many hours he should be studying,” Altenbach explains. “I answered, ‘How many hours are you awake?’”

Heyward’s appointment with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is a meaningful moment for the classical music industry. “I hope it brings for the industry and beyond the concept that this art form is truly for all, no matter your race, religion, or socioeconomic background,” Heyward says. “This wonderful art form is for everyone.” As only the second Black conductor in history to lead a major symphony orchestra in the United States, his presence at the podium means a great deal for the visibility of people of color in the classical music industry, particularly in a city like Baltimore, where 62 percent of residents are Black.

As someone whose introduction to classical music occurred in the public school system, Heyward understands the value of educational outreach. He previously spent three years as music director of the Hallé Youth Orchestra in Manchester, England, and is particularly excited to continue the Baltimore Symphony’s work with OrchKids, a Baltimore public school system music program founded by his predecessor, Marin Alsop.

Eager to create new initiatives aimed at connecting the orchestra with its surrounding community, Heyward is especially keen to partner with communities traditionally underrepresented in classical music. As he told the New York Times, “If a 10-year-old boy from Charleston, South Carolina, with no music education background, with no musicians in the family, can be enamored and amazed by this, by the best art form there is—classical music—then I think anyone can. I plan on trying to prove that in many, many ways.”