By Shaela Foster
Special to the AFRO
Credit: Photos by Stephen Hopkins 

The creative direction of Jonathon Heyward, the first Black and youngest music director in the history of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO), was on full display Sept. 23.

On day two of the three day celebration, held from Sept. 22 to Sept. 24., participants were able to experience the rich sounds of the BSO musicians as they were led by Heyward and joined by special guests. 

“It takes a village, it takes a community for a musical and artistic movement to begin. Since I was announced as your musical director for this fantastic Symphony Orchestra I have felt the support and the guidance,” Heyward told the audience. “It really means alot to me- the amount of support that both my wife and I have received as we have been welcomed into this wonderful city and this tremendous community. I cannot wait to see what the next five years have in store.” 

The 31-year-old was sure to acknowledge those who helped make his debut a smooth performance. 

“I’d like to make sure that we celebrate the core of everything this organization really is– the musicians right behind me,” said Heyward. He also acknowledged the contributions of the student artists that work with the BSO, and also took time to thank another special group of guests that graced the stage during the debut.

“It has been one of the greatest privileges to be able to work alongside the exquisite Dance Theatre of Harlem,” he said. 

Mark C. Hanson, president and CEO of BSO spoke with members of the media ahead of the 2023 BSO Gala. 

“We are hoping to signal to the entire community, the entire state, for that matter, that this incredible music, these incredible musicians– including Jonathon Heyward– are for everyone,” said Hanson.

To end the celebration on Sept. 24 at 3 p.m. in the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, BSO put on a free community concert to celebrate the return of Artscape. Members of the BSO OrchKids and Baltimore Symphony Youth Orchestra (BSYO) were highlighted throughout the multiple days of festivities and performances. 

“It’s phenomenal, it’s absolutely phenomenal. Our children get to see themselves, point blank,” said Jared Perry, band director at Booker T. Washington Middle. 

The BSO OrchKids initiative is a year-round program that collaborates with seven Baltimore City schools, providing in-school and afterschool workshops for students to develop musical skills. 

The skills learned in OrchKids transfer to academic settings and also helps participants learn to better express themselves, their creativity and work collectively with others. The children also get the chance to work closely with some of BSO’s musicians. 

When asked about the impact of the OrchKids program, Perry said the experience is invaluable. 

“One of the biggest things is the immediate exposure to the arts with resources,” said Perry, who was named 2023 Teacher of the Year for Baltimore City Public Schools. 

Students of the OrchKids program receive orchestra instruments to practice and perform. 

“One of the biggest things for me are the camps,” Perry told the AFRO.  “If the students work hard they’re going to camps that would be completely out of reach because you’re talking about inner city —you’re talking about West Baltimore. We know the challenges that they face and they’re successful everyday. To add this element of exposure is just absolutely phenomenal.”

Perry currently has 15 OrchKids students, but is hoping to get more. 

During the BSO Gala, guests indulged in sounds of Bach’s “Violin Concerto No.1 in A minor,” Hailstork’s “Symphony No.1” and a variety of classic orchestra numbers with a twist.

“It was beautiful, I cried during the show because I saw Black people on stage dancing and representation matters. That’s why I’ve been away from art so long, I didn’t see me up there,” said Aaron Dante, 43, founder of the No Pix After Dark Podcast and native Baltimorean. “When I saw that this brother was from Charleston, S.C. … and I saw him doing his thing– I had to be here. As a Black man I’ve gotta be a supporter of another Black man.”

Heyward is originally from Charleston, S.C. and started musical training as a 10- year- old cellist. 

While in school, he began his career as a conductor. He studied the art of conducting at the Boston Conservatory of Music and soon became an assistant conductor of the opera department. He’s conducted all over the U.S. in cities like Atlanta, Detroit and St. Louis. 

His passion for education and community outreach work has skyrocketed over the last several years. 

In a press release by BSO, Heyward states the collaboration with BYSO, OrchKids and the Dance Theatre of Harlem, underscores his belief in the life-changing power the arts has in its ability to inspire and uplift others. 

In addition to him being the first Black and youngest music director, he is also the only “American-born leader of any major American orchestra,” according to BSO. 

“Baltimore is on the precipice of a renaissance that we have been trying to construct for so many years,” Emmy, Grammy and Tony Award winning performance artist and director André De Shields told the AFRO. “Baltimore is one of the few to continuously, consistently produce excellence- especially among the African-American society.” 

Shaela Foster is an AFRO Intern from the University of Maryland, College Park.