Baltimore’s first professional orchestra, the Peabody Orchestra, bowed in 1866 with overtures by Auber and Bellini, and Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. That the same program would hardly be out of place today says something about the rate of change in the classical-music world.
Jonathon Heyward offers welcome counterpoint.
The 31-year-old South Carolina native is the youngest-ever music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, as well as the first person of color in the position. Heyward initially studied the cello; when the Boston Conservatory created a student assistant-conductor position in their opera department, Heyward got the nod (“my first job, really”) and has yet to look back, pursuing further studies in London and going on to conduct leading orchestras in the UK and Europe.
Heyward launches his BSO tenure with a three-concert tour beginning Sept. 22 at Strathmore.
Heyward spoke from his home in England and this interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.
You’re opening the season with a fascinating gala program, featuring music and dance. How’s the preparation for that going?
The preparation is really exciting. … We want to be Baltimore’s orchestra, but also the state of Maryland’s orchestra. I think part of our mission is to make sure that we serve the community in as many ways as we possibly can. So to be able to bring the gala for the first time ever to our fantastic other home at Strathmore is really special for us. It’s an intentional practice to serve our community at Strathmore just as much as we do in Baltimore. And I’m thrilled to be able to bring the Dance Theatre of Harlem, this historically amazing dance troupe that I’ve followed for a lot of my career and my life and been inspired by for a very long time. It’s a real treat.
You’ve spent many years working in Europe, where there’s a long-standing tradition of orchestras that are very much part of the community where they are. In America, it sometimes happens that way and sometimes doesn’t. What’s been your experience so far in Baltimore?
One of the things that drew me to the Baltimore Symphony the most was its commitment to serve the entire state. I’m the chief conductor also of the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie, which is a state orchestra in Germany, primarily funded by the government to play for the northwest region, which is very large. So we’ll repeat a program five or six or eight times in all of these smaller beautiful towns across the region. Growing up in Charleston, South Carolina, we had a great orchestra in Charleston, but they certainly didn’t travel and you didn’t get nearly as much music as in a similar city in Germany. So for me, it’s sort of in my DNA—to be able to serve the entire state with classical music on a regular basis.
Have you had much chance to get to know sort of the larger musical community in Maryland—other groups, composers, performers?
Yeah! During [the past year] I really made it a priority to get to know musicians and arts organizations, not only in Baltimore, but also in the several different counties that we serve. And it’s been great to collect all this information: where the BSO has been for many years, where it hasn’t been, where we can continue what we’ve been doing, but also where we maybe can think about modifying so that we serve the communities in better and stronger ways. It’s good to always remember that it was one of the only American orchestras that started out as a municipal orchestra, run by the state. And so, in a way, it has this unique identity of serving its community throughout the state of Maryland.
We have our Music for Maryland tour. We’ve just announced this great partnership with the University of Maryland. The Baltimore School for the Arts, also. We have Baltimore’s James Lee III being our composer-in-residence for 2024-25; we kick off with a piece of his this season to kind of get that going. All of these are really intentional ideas that I and my colleagues in the artistic team have really thought about.
One of the things I think about all the time with classical music is the omnipresence of the past—the predominance of historical repertoire. It can be a positive thing, that this old music can still be so vital and immediate in performance, but it can also be a sign of how slow change can be in the classical-music world. How do you reconcile the demands of the past and the present
Having a living composer on almost every single program throughout the season was so important while I was building my first season as music director. We all grew up loving and adoring the greats! We have to acknowledge that. But we can imagine an evolution of classical music that is parallel with the music that we hear today and the music that is being composed today. This concept and idea that new music is the other, if you will, is something that I basically don’t agree with.
It takes some time to really think about what to pair with this new music. It becomes a whole experience within itself, which is what everyone wants when they come to a concert, I think. And you realize that Beethoven isn’t too far from Missy Mazzoli, whose [music] we’re doing in November, and that James Lee’s Amer’ican, which we’re premiering in September, is really inspired by Dvořák’s Ninth.
Thoughtful programming is the way forward in order to build and create and evolve the art form. Sometimes I get very frustrated about uninspiring programming because I think that that’s where we lose traction and that’s where we lose the evolution. It’s an exciting time because we’ve got some amazing voices at the moment, writing some absolutely extraordinary work.
When you’re on the podium, you get to sort of take in and redirect and channel the energy of whatever ensemble you’re in front of. What’s that been like with the BSO so far? What’s unique to them and inspiring to you?
I’ve been in a fortunate position where I’ve been able to travel the world and work with a lot of different orchestras, and I think the level with which the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra engages with the score is really unparalleled. For me, that’s the key of all of it. If we don’t have a group that is dedicated, flexible, adaptable, we can’t be a part of the journey of the evolution of the art form.
Matthew Guerrieri is a composer, pianist, critic and the author of books about Beethoven and Doctor Who.
This story appears in the September/October issue of Bethesda Magazine.