Jonathon Heyward revisits childhood fascination with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
By Jon Ross, For the AJC

Guest conductor returns to the scene of a memory that had a “profound effect” on his life.

Conductor Jonathon Heyward can still see the colors, the brilliant lights. He can still picture where he sat decades removed from his first visit to Atlanta’s Symphony Hall to see the orchestra. Heyward on a school trip – the exact details are a little fuzzy – and the tunes played that day are lost to memory, but the impression on that Augusta-born, Charleston-bred kid stuck.

“It’s one of those really vivid memories. It had such a profound effect on me,” Heyward, 29, said from his office in Herford, Germany, during a break rehearsing the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie. Heyward, who was appointed chief conductor of the German ensemble last year, said that experience “solidified his passion” for a career in classical music. “It’s unimaginably special to be able to work with them now.”

The conductor returns to Symphony Hall March 24 and 26 for his Atlanta Symphony Orchestra debut, leading the orchestra in a program of Beethoven’s “Leonore” Overture No. 3, Symphony No. 9 by Dmitri Shostakovich and the world premiere of Xavier Dubois Foley’s “Soul Bass,” an ASO commission. March 24 is HBCU night, with special programming that includes a pre-concert performance by ASO’s Talent Development Program musicians. Foley, who was raised in Marietta, is a graduate of that program. The bassist last appeared with the ASO in virtual programming in November 2020 to lead his composition “For Justice and Peace.”

Heyward wasn’t originally supposed to work with Foley. The conductor had been engaged to come to Atlanta two years ago to lead a new work by Montenegrin guitarist Miloš Karadaglić, but that May 2020 program never occurred due to the pandemic. During the months of shutdowns, with time off on his hands, he undertook a deep study of Schumann symphonies — “I had all the time, all the space to look at every single dot,” he said. He also looked inward, exploring the true meaning of being an ambassador for classical music.

“There was a lot of reflecting … about what it means to be a conductor, what influence I might have in the community, the significance of my role in a society — these really big questions that you never have time to think about,” he said. “I’ve learned so much about myself as an artist and what I really want to do.”

As a multiracial conductor in a traditionally white industry, Heyward also considered how to best use his position at the front of the podium as a mouthpiece. Lack of representation is just part of the challenge. Socioeconomics also play a role. With these issues in the back of his mind, Heyward focuses on showing young kids “that this path, this industry, is for everyone” — leading by example.

“A lot of the times I just want to be seen as a conductor. Of course, there needs to be visibility, and I will always fight for better visibility within classical music. But I choose to also focus on the music as much as I possibly can,” he said.

The conductor’s ASO appearance occurs toward the end of a U.S. tour set to take him to Baltimore, San Diego and Louisville, Kentucky. As a guest conductor, Heyward is used to going from ensemble to ensemble, meeting a new band, leading a handful of rehearsals and putting on concerts at the end of the week. In these circumstances, he follows the creed “listen more than do.” This builds trust with the musicians and allows him to see how he might best help the orchestra achieve their mutual goals. Conducting is collaboration, he said, and he is open to being shown a new way of doing things by veteran members of the ensemble.

“I’m very well aware that when I’m stepping onto the podium sometimes people have been there longer than I’ve been alive,” he said.

He’s also always thinking of the audience, how to tailor older works around newer music to show listeners how the new reflects the old. He looks to connect with listeners seeing him perform for the first time in the hopes he’ll come to know well a new community of music lovers. That all of this is finally happening in Atlanta makes the work that much sweeter.

“I’ve got a lot of family and friends coming, a lot of people who got me to where I am today,” he said, “and for them to be able to see me on stage is going to be an absolutely exhilarating experience.”

Read the article on the AJC website here