Jonathon Heyward, who will take the top baton as music director at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in the fall of 2023, is a charismatic 29-year-old with long, loose curls. As befits a conductor, he has oversized, expressive hands and an easygoing manner.
Heyward, who will become the BSO’s first music director of color in its 106-year history, met with a handful of reporters Thursday afternoon for 30 minutes at Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, weaving together his answers to their questions with the same deftness with which he intertwines the different voices in an orchestra.
Often, his words were thoughtful and complex. At other times, he wasn’t afraid to be goofy.
Heyward, who is biracial and comes from a socioeconomically challenged background, first was exposed to music during a free public school program in his native South Carolina.
That has made him eager, he said, “to be an ambassador for classical music, the greatest art form there is.” He said that as a young Black man in Baltimore, a majority-Black city, “I understand that my presence here is much more significant than it would be in other cities.”
Music lovers will have to wait to form their own impressions of the symphony’s new conductor; Heyward won’t return to Baltimore until next May to perform two weekends of concerts, and will begin his five-year post about four months later.
In the meantime, here are a five things to know about the BSO’s new music director:
Before, Heywood settled on a career as a conductor, he studied the cello seriously.
“Yo-Yo Ma came to Charleston when I was first learning to play the cello,” he said. “I caught him on the stairwell when he was leaving the concert hall and he signed my Suzuki training book.
“I used to skip French class in order to sit in on Charleston Symphony Orchestra rehearsals. The rehearsals weren’t open, but my teacher was a cellist in the orchestra and he got me in.
“I used to sit behind the cello section listening to what the conductor was doing, and think about what was working and what maybe what was not working. The psychology of those interactions was fascinating.”
It was apparent even before Heyward graduated with a master’s degree in conducting from London’s Royal Academy of Music in 2016 that he was on the brink of a big career.
He was just 23 when he won the prestigious 54th International Competition for Young Conductors in Besancon, France, in 2015. The following year, Heyward landed his first regular conducting gig when he was appointed to a two-year post as assistant conductor of the Halle Orchestra in England.
The up-and-coming conductor first came to the attention of the nation’s music critics in 2017 when he was 25 years old. With just two days to prepare, he stepped in to conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic after the originally scheduled conductor, Miguel Harth-Bedoya, fell ill.
The headline of the Dec. 24, 2017, review in The Los Angeles Times summed up Heyward’s performance up like this: “Sounds, echoes of Bernstein; A young conductor impressively fills in with the L.A. Phil.”
Heyward’s predecessor at the BSO was Marin Alsop, who stepped down last summer after 14 years as top baton. Alsop is in Chicago this week rehearsing the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for its upcoming performances at the outdoor Ravinia Festival.
When Alsop became the BSO’s music director in 2007, she was the first woman ever to helm one of the 20 biggest-budget American orchestras. So she took a few moments Thursday to send an email congratulating Heyward on breaking through his own glass ceiling.
“Thrilled for Jonathon,” she wrote. “Thrilled for Baltimore! Wonderful that they are making history again and I look forward to getting to know Jonathon.”
The BSO musicians already were excited about Heyward’s conducting abilities. But percussionist Brian Prechtl remembers the precise moment when Heyward endeared himself to him personally.
On April 21, the symphony and The Creative Alliance co-sponsored a benefit concert, raising $40,000 for humanitarian aid in Ukraine. Heyward conducted that concert and attended the after-concert party, where members of a Ukrainian band were performing native music on a raised platform.
“The singer invited Jonathon to join them,” Prechtl remembered, “and the next thing you know Jonathon is up there on that platform dancing and making that cross-cultural connection. His personality is really winning, and he’s comfortable in his own skin.”
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Heyward’s father was a chef and his mother was a waitress. He has one younger brother, a member of the Armed Forces. His new bride is training to be an opera singer.
But though he spent most of his life in Charleston, South Carolina, his speech doesn’t betray even a hint of a Southern drawl. Instead, he has a decidedly British accent — and a posh one, at that.
Heyward attributes it to the eight years he has lived in London. In addition, he said, his wife is British.
“She comes from a quaint town called Sandwich in England,” he said. “In order to get there, you have to literally drive past another town called Ham.”
Conductors jet around the world a lot, and Heyward is in his second year as chief conductor of Germany’s Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie.
But he said he and his wife will “definitely have a place of residence” in Baltimore.
Can a Bawlmer accent be far behind?