Almost 20 years ago, Jonathon Heyward picked up a cello at a free music program in Charleston, South Carolina. On Thursday, he picked up his baton to conduct the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in full for the first time since his historic appointment as music director in July.
Heyward, 30, is the youngest and first person of color to lead the orchestra, which was founded in 1916. His energy is palpable. When we meet, he’s fresh off his debut with the New York Philharmonic. He said it was wonderful; others, including The New York Times, agreed, writing that Heyward’s “reputation for dramatic feeling and attention to dynamics seemed to be well earned.” During a rehearsal Tuesday for his upcoming debut with the BSO, musicians eagerly asked questions during breaks. It was clear there is chemistry in their burgeoning relationship; Heyward speaks their language.
Access to music as a child was key to Heyward’s success, he said. It’s something he hopes to continue: He is eager to partner with the BSO’s OrchKids program, which provides youth in the city with “equitable access to community-based, high-quality music instruction and programming that teaches musical and social skills,” according to its website. And while cello was Heyward’s instrument of choice through most of his young life — he studied it at the Boston Conservatory of Music (now called Boston Conservatory at Berklee) — he always had a passion for conducting.
He has spent most of his professional career conducting in England and Germany (and has a slight British accent to match), but his five-year term stateside with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will officially begin in September with the group’s opening gala. In addition to his Thursday performance at the Music Center at Strathmore, Heyward will lead the orchestra Saturday and Sunday at the city’s Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What kind of music do you listen to outside of work?
Jonathon Heyward: Jazz, always jazz. Miles [Davis], Nina [Simone], [John] Coltrane. The greats! It’s sort of my way of unwinding.
When did you realize you wanted to be a conductor?
JH: The main reason why was I stumbled upon it when I was in middle school. It was all to do with a substitute teacher who wasn’t a musician. I got the opportunity because he put all our names in a hat, and it was very serendipitous, like most of my musical life quite frankly.
What I fell in love with was the idea of the score. The score is what the conductor reads, and what amazed me — and still amazes me today, really — is seeing so many different parts make one unified sound. And the fact that that’s our job as a conductors is to make one sound out of many is something that fascinated me. The power behind that. That’s why I think this art form is so powerful. All these musicians are highly trained with years of experience and education, and you get such a caliber of sound and unification when that all comes together. I’ve always loved collaborating and what that means. As a conductor I’m a facilitator, that’s what my job is.
Do you see any similarities between Baltimore and your hometown of Charleston?
JH: That’s so interesting. I never really thought about that. Maybe there is and I haven’t thought about it. I mean the fact that they’re both rich in culture, actually. There’s a lot of depth of culture and arts, and history of culture and arts in both places.
Do you hear any similarities between the Baltimore accent and the British accent?
JH: Really! I can’t say I’ve yet found the similarities but stay tuned over the next five years.
Do you have any favorite parts of the city?
JH: It’s a continuous exploration. I’m finding myself in the Canton area and the Fells Point area a lot. I love being next to the harbor. For me, there’s something about being close to water and seeing that beautiful cityscape is really, really lovely. I can’t wait to explore more though.
Could you talk a bit about what it’s like to be the first Black conductor of the BSO?
JH: For me, I’m also standing on the shoulders of many fantastically talented African American conductors that were before me. James DePreist is one to point out — a great African American conductor who also had quite a life in Europe as well. I think what’s amazing is that we’re growing in the field to realize this art form can be for absolutely anyone. To be a part of that narrative is something I hope to really stamp in my tenure here in Baltimore — for everyone to realize that this art form, this space is absolutely for everyone.
How do you feel about the lack of diversity in the BSO, especially given that you and Jonathan Rush, both Black men, are music director and associate music director, but I’m noticing there’s a lack of diversity with the musicians on stage. How do you plan to address that?
JH: I think the biggest way for me to think about long-term trajectory of how we build diversity on our stages, it starts with education — being able to deep dive into the great organization that we have in the BSO OrchKids and being able to funnel aspiring musicians to our stages.
The BSO OrchKids is what I’m truly, truly invested in … and really having a good, strong stakeholder in that. And with BSO being so involved with BSO OrchKids, I think that there’s great opportunity there. That’s the biggest way of how I want to really make sure that the diversity that we have in our community is also on stage.
What are your first-year goals and plans as you’re moving out of your designate role into the position?
JH: I think a lot of it’s very interesting because a lot of my designate time was almost like, I’ve already got this, you know, I’m already in the job. Because there’s a lot of learning, of course, and a lot of listening. And to be frank, something that won’t change is that continued learning and listening — learning and listening about the community, learning and listening about where we’ve come from and how we want to go forward as as a organization, and also as an orchestra. So there’s actually quite a lot of similarities. In a way, I feel like I’ve already hit the ground running as a designate, and I hope to just continue that wonderful momentum through my five-year tenure.