April 23, 2023—I recently heard an interview and watched two videocasts featuring current Black leaders in the classical music field, which reminded me of the importance of maintaining a spotlight on this area of the arts—an area where people of color are still few but continue to press to open the doors of opportunity.
The videocasts were with Jonathon Heyward, Musical Director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO); Leslie Dunner, D.M.A., of Interlochen Center for the Arts, and the radio interview was with Chi-chi Nwanoku, CBE, founder and artistic director of the Chineke! Foundation, which is based in the United Kingdom.
Mr. Heyward is 30 years-old and the first conductor of color in the BSO’s 107-year history. Unanimously chosen by the orchestra’s search committee comprised of BSO musicians, staff, and community members, he has been serving as the chief conductor of the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie in Herford, Germany, since January 2021. A native of South Carolina, Mr. Heyward began his musical training at the age of 10 as a cellist and started conducting while still at school. He went on to study conducting at the Boston Conservatory of Music and the Royal Academy of Music in London.
Mr. Heyward continues to work as a guest conductor for orchestras throughout Europe and the United States, and he is known for both his work in education and community outreach. You can find the Arts Engines videocast interview with Mr. Heyward at this link, where he shares his philosophy of leadership and the power of collaboration in creating great art. And you can view the BSO’s introduction video to Mr. Heyward at this link.
Dr. Dunner serves as conductor of the Interlochen Arts Academy Orchestra. He also is interim artistic director of the South Shore Opera Company of Chicago, where he has been music director since 2014, and resident conductor of New Jersey’s Trilogy: An Opera Company since 2018. His moving performance with the Long Beach Opera of The Central Park Five composed by Anthony Davis received the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in Music. He attended the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester and received the Doctorate of Musical Arts and Orchestral Conducting from the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati.
Ms. Nwanoku is a Professor of Double Bass Historical Studies at the Royal Academy of Music. She took up the double bass after a knee injury at age 18 sidelined her dream of being a sprinter. In active pursuit of a music career, Ms. Nwanoku studied at the Royal Academy and in Rome with Franco Petracchi. Her extraordinary skills as a double bassist led to both international acclaim and performances worldwide.
She established the Chineke! Foundation to celebrate diversity in the classical music industry through its two orchestras—the Chineke! Orchestra and Chineke! Junior Orchestra—as well as to launch educational and community engagement programs. The Chineke! Foundation also seeks to increase the representation of Black and ethnically diverse classical musicians in British and European orchestras. You can listen to the NPR interview at this link, in which Ms. Nwanoku discusses the Chineke! Orchestra’s first North American tour.
BIPOC Arts is an online database that celebrates opera professionals of color. The database was created by Alejandra Valarino Boyer in 2020 to provide a platform for BIPOC opera artists to share their talents. She was determined to address the common responses of opera producers when asked about the lack of diversity—they are “unable to find qualified artists of color.” While the BIPOC Arts database is still growing, Ms. Valarino Boyer believes it is having an impact. Her goal is that it will become the first checkpoint for producers and creators to find the BIPOC opera professionals they are seeking—from arts administrators to performers.
I also encourage you to check out the efforts of the Black Orchestra Network, which I first wrote about last year. In addition to its podcast, BON has been holding conversations with Black students across the country to discuss how they can support the growth of those interested in pursuing careers in classical music.