by Aliza Worthington
Jonathon Heyward is blazing musical trails across Europe and the United States, and fortunately for our city, has chosen Baltimore as his primary musical home as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra starting with their 2023-24 season.
Born in Charleston, South Carolina, the 31-year-old started playing cello at the age of 10 and began conducting soon after. He attended the Boston Conservatory of Music, became assistant conductor of the school’s opera department and of the Boston Opera Collaborative. Heyward was mentored by none other than Sir Mark Elder and named a fellow of the Royal Academy of Music — an honor reserved only for Academy alumni.
He holds three prestigious positions, not as a struggling musician trying to make ends meet, but as a heavily in-demand rising star in the classical music world. Heyward is Chief Conductor of Germany’s Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie, Music Director of Lincoln Center’s Summer Orchestra (which is transitioning from the Mostly Mozart series into a new format and focus), and now music director of the BSO.
Following Marin Alsop’s 14 years directing the orchestra, Heyward is also a first in many ways. He is the first Black conductor to lead the BSO, and the youngest. Alsop was the first woman to lead the orchestra, or any major American orchestra. She was the first woman to win the Koussevitsky Prize for conducting, and the first conductor to win a MacArthur Fellowship. Heyward is excited to be taking the baton from her, as it were, and is as open to Baltimore making its imprint on him as he hopes to begin creating his relationship with Baltimore — through music and more.
Heyward spoke with Baltimore Fishbowl from Milan, where he was touring with Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie, about everything from his love of Mahler to his affinity for Old Bay, and of course, the Converse Conductor origin story.
This conversation has been minimally edited for length and clarity.
Baltimore Fishbowl: You’re in Milan right now with the German orchestra. Is that right?
Jonathon Heyward: Yes, one of my three jobs.
BF: One of your THREE jobs, I know! So one of my questions is that it’s my understanding that it’s unusual in the United States for the large metropolitan orchestras to have an American conductor. We have sort of a bias toward European conductors. Is it equally unusual in Europe to have an American conductor?
JH: I think it’s actually quite normal for anything connected to a European orchestra to be having music directors from America, actually. It’s a funny backwards situation, I think. I think it’s a little bit of exoticism on both sides, if I can dare say, which I’ve always sort of noticed even as a kid growing up that I never saw an American conductor really conducting an American orchestra. Only a few exceptions. James DePreist is one of them of course in Oregon, and MTT (Michael Tilson Thomas) in San Francisco, but yeah, partly I think it’s always exciting to them. Everyone wants something a bit different.
BF: We’re very excited to have you in Baltimore and what we would love to know is, while the last decade-plus with Marin Alsop has been very exciting for us, how are the next few years going to become the Jonathon Heyward years? How are you going to put your signature on Baltimore and the symphony, and the symphonic music scene in Baltimore?
JH: Well, I think it’s really it starts with Baltimore itself. I mean, I’ve had a great pleasure of the year and a bit of time as music director designate to understand what Baltimore needs from us as the largest arts organization in Maryland, and I think it’s really important to start with that. I think my inspiration for being a music director of the symphony orchestra has always been one that I feel as music director, you’re an ambassador for the city in which your music director and I don’t take that responsibility very lightly. I think there’s so much culture and so much actually beautiful history that Baltimore has that we as an organization can really support and have that sort of Baltimore pride as part of the sort of bedrock of what we what we do artistically. And with a vision that amplifies that, and so, I think I like to think that we’re off to a good start in a lot of ways because we have James Lee III, who is of course, a Baltimore based composer who was the first piece in our program for our subscription series concerts. And of course, we then just continue our relationship with him as composer-in-residence for the 24-25 season. So, it’s elements like that, that I think I’m so excited to even get to know Baltimore further so we can really embed that into the sort of artistic vision as an organization and as a symphony orchestra.
BF: I remember you reading an interview with you, wherein you talked about the importance of getting stringed instruments into the hands of children, elementary school children, if they’re going to really develop a love for symphonic music. Do you have any plans or any hopes to try to make inroads in that scene in Baltimore? Is that is that something you’re interested in exploring?
JH: It’s not only in my interest in exploring, it’s my huge responsibility as an artist as an artistic leader, to make sure that we have an arts organization really sort of have that as a part of our vantage point when we develop our vision. And of course, I have the great luxury of continuing this fantastic program, the BSO OrchKids program, which my predecessor, Marin Alsop founded. And now in its, I believe, 15th year now going on to 16th year it’s an amazing vehicle to enhance, and make sure it has great foundation for many for the next 15 years and to thrive and grow with different programs, larger programs, more expansive programs, not only in Baltimore, but in the surrounding area. And we dedicate a part of our vision to that growth of that program, but also our various other programs that we have in our education department, that has seen thousands of school students a year in every season that we that we have. So that’s a huge part of the discussions that we often have with my education team in the BSO and the greater area of Baltimore already.
BF: What do you think the barrier is? I never understood why stringed instruments were so — not off limits or taboo, but why it seems like it was such an effort to get them into young hands in public schools. Is it an expense issue, or is it that it’s hard to find teachers who are comfortable?
JH: Yeah, I mean, I think it starts with leaders and leadership. We have to make sure that school boards and principals see the full concept of why it’s important to continue these programs to be able to nurture a whole student’s potential. I can say, and I do, until I turn blue in the face, that when we when we’re talking about music in the curriculum, we’re not just talking, we’re not necessarily asking for the potential of the next symphonic musicians, though it would be nice. What we’re really acknowledging that through numerous amounts of studies, music in part of a curriculum develops a much more well-rounded education. And there are numerous studies. We all know this. But until we really convince the powers that be, which we’re working on, even as an organization, that this is really crucial. And this is important, and it’s not just an extra, it’s not just a situation in which we can all think about it when we have money. No. It’s a completely unacceptable to think of it like that. And we’re missing a trick if we do that. So I write letters, often to superintendents, and I’m convincing our education department to have a Principals Night where we get as many principals into our hall so they acknowledge and see the power of symphonic music. Hopefully then that will inspire them to see the importance of why this needs to be a part of the curriculum. It’s not a question. It should just be embedded. So, I think for us, we’re targeting the powers that be in order to support this. The teachers —
BF: The teachers know.
JH: Yeah, the teachers know, but they need support in that way.
BF: Interesting. I want to make sure I talk about what your plans for the orchestra are, because you’re very well rounded. When you were the Boston Conservatory, you worked with the Opera Collaborative. I went to Mostly Mozart concerts when I was a child and my dad’s cousin was a pianist and played at Lincoln Center, Beethoven’s fourth Piano Concerto at a Mostly Mozart concert and so, these were the concerts I went to growing up. So I guess I would like to know, are you thinking of doing any concert performances of operas? Do you have a composer you’re thinking of doing a retrospective of on? What kinds of creative things would sort of fill your soul for the orchestra?
JH: Yeah, no, thanks for asking. I mean, there are so many, of course, obviously, specific composers whom I’d love to perform and one of them of course, is Shostakovich. Being able to have my debut with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Shostakovich’s last symphony, which they never played before and I’d never conducted, which was a very big risk and I’m a risk taker. So that’s probably the theme of me in general, but that composer is someone that I love. And of course, we’ll be doing the Eighth Symphony towards end of the season which can be really wonderful. Mahler, of course. Mahler is every conductor’s dream composer. And I think you can learn so much from an orchestra and how your relationship is with the orchestra through Mahler’s music, there’s so much in it, you know? We do have an opera company in Baltimore, and they of course are a strong organization. However, I think we can also help support opera in Baltimore and I’m looking forward to being a part of that.
BF: Do you have collaborative ideas in mind with The Lyric?
JH: I wouldn’t say directly with them yet. Maybe there could be something, but I would say we are certainly thinking of programming opera as a sort of first step concert, stage sort of thing. And I think also, artistically, the orchestra really have a great sound world for opera, and particularly the works of Verdi, that I’m sort of looking at an opera that I’ve always been inspired by, so stay tuned.
JH: But we’re certainly on the precipice of thinking about that, but those are sort of my trajectories. But there’s so much music I love, it’s hard to sort of isolate it all. The composers that I haven’t mentioned, of course, a huge part of the trajectory, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, to continue this thread. And making sure that if I’m not conducting it, certainly we get guest conductors to kind of fill in those holes, if you will.
BF: Veering away from the orchestra, is there anything about Baltimore that excites you? That you’re interested in learning about? We’re talking about what you’re giving to Baltimore, but what can Baltimore give to you? Are you a sports guy? Are you an art guy? Do you love food? Is there is there a neighborhood that intrigues you?
JH: Yeah, yeah, I mean, there’s a lot there. And I think as I sort of continue to explore, it’s been very fun. I mean, my first pitch out for the Orioles was amazing, and very, very fun. And just being a part of all these organizations is something that I am interested in because I want to get to know Baltimore more, and I think being able to just be embedded in all aspects of it, whether that be sports, arts museums, and of course, I mean, the food scene, I just love.
BF: Are you a crab fan?
JH: I am a HUGE crab fan. So Old Bay seasoning has always been my favorite.
BF: Is that right? Well, you grew up in Louisiana? Didn’t you grow up in the South?
JH: Charleston, South Carolina.
BF: Oh, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, South Carolina.
JH: Charleston, South Carolina. But that direction. Yeah, no, I mean, I grew up with seafood, being in Charleston. So, yeah, I feel right at home in Baltimore in a lot of ways. But I think also just being a part of the sort of creative scene, I’ve been in Mount Vernon a lot of the time, where I’m staying, and we’re eventually getting more permanent housing really soon, but, being able to see and walk to work and have conversations with some of these most incredible audience members, but also creatives. I’ve met so many faculty from Peabody, faculty from BSA (Baltimore School for the Arts) and just had wonderful, relaxed conversations about art, life, music in Baltimore, it’s so wonderful. It’s the openness and I think the only thing I would say is please just continue the openness. I mean, I love the sort of open communication that I’ve had so far with everyone. And long may it continue, because I think that, that all these small conversations help inform my vision and direction for where I think the orchestra should go. And so that’s the only thing that I would say that Baltimore could, quote unquote, give to me, which is the continued love and support and openness and kind of communication. And it’s already been given to me since the beginning of my mantle, really.
BF: I gotta ask, I can’t let this go without asking. Are you going to wear the Converse when you conduct? Do you wear the Converse when you conduct? Will you please wear the conduct Converse when you conduct?
JH: Well, I have to say it wouldn’t be the first time — I did it in the gala.
BF: Wasn’t there a Golden Converse contest or something? (At Artscape)
JH: I think Whitney will be a testament to that. But it got much bigger than we ever thought it would have gotten. Actually, we had to find more Golden Converse and hide more Golden Converse than we ever thought we would have to in the beginning. And so, I love it. It’s a trademark. I love that it’s sort of a groundbreaker in a lot of ways. It’s about relatability.
JH: If a pair of shoes can do that in classical music, fine. That’s amazing. Great. Why not?
BF: The converse is a relatability thing. I was dying to ask you about the “Maestro” episode of Seinfeld. If you’ve ever seen that episode of Seinfeld, where Elaine is dating a conductor and he insists everybody call him “Maestro,” even if they’re sitting at the diner, it’s very funny. Do you have a favorite reference in pop culture? Do you have a favorite pop culture conductor thing?
JH: Yeah, I mean, I think my biggest thing is demystifying all of that. Again, it’s just about, at the end of the day, I’m still a regular human being as much as anyone else. My job of course is to bring music together. But I don’t know if you know the story behind the Converse.
BF: I don’t know. I don’t really know the origin story of the Converse. I would love if we could end with that. Give me the origin story.
JH: I’ll just give you the Reader’s Digest version. But basically, I was working as an assistant conductor in an orchestra in the UK. And mainly a lot of my job was education and community concerts. So, one day I was rushing off very, very late for an education concert. And it was five minutes right before, so I had to quickly change. And I realized that I did not bring my formal pairs of shoes. And I had these bright red Chuck Taylors on.
BF: Not even the black ones. They were the bright red ones.
JH: BRIGHT red. I just went to the education director. I said, “I’m really sorry, this is all I’ve got.” And it was two minutes before going on stage. And they said, “Well, you just go on, just do it.” And so, I did it. And normally we always get these wonderful letters about how the concert went from the students. And that week, instead of getting a conversation about music, there were cards about the music, plus, there were these cards with my red Converse. And I just thought it was an amazing moment that again, just broke the barrier of what the stigma is about classical music and/or about a conductor. And I just thought, “Wow, isn’t it amazing that okay, yes, they saw the shoes, but maybe they heard the music differently, in a way. Maybe they heard it in a more relatable way just because I wore a different pair of shoes.” And that sort of spun a lot of ideas about how to break this wall, this imaginary wall that we sometimes have with audiences.
BF: Do you make it a point to wear those when you’re doing the concerts for students?
JH: Yeah, for education concerts I tend to, definitely for education concerts, and Young People’s concerts and at the world famous Amsterdam Concertgebouw. I made my debut there with my German orchestra actually, and was wearing red Chuck Taylors because it was a Halloween family concert and I thought, “Why not?”
BF: Not orange?
JH: It was probably blasphemy to this amazing concert hall. I mean, if you haven’t seen it…
BF: I haven’t. No.
JH: Oh, if you see a picture, it’s one of the most gorgeous, acoustically and aesthetically, concert halls, but there I was making my debut in Chuck Taylors.
BF: Well, you’re going to have to get some orange and black Chuck Taylors for the Orioles. That’s going to have to happen.
JH: Yes, yes.
BF: And add some purple for the Ravens.
JH: Of course!
BF. Well, I am so grateful to you for your time, and I cannot wait to see you in action. I really can’t. Thank you, and I hope you get some sleep.
JH: Tonight is concert, so tonight I’ll be on stage in about two hours. Italians do everything later.