‘Baltimore is in for an adventure’: Newly named BSO music director Jonathon Heyward makes Lincoln Center debut with ‘rock star’ performance

By Mary Carole McCauley

NEW YORK — Jonathon Heyward, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s new music director designate, recently came across a 10-year-old photograph of himself standing in front of Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center. He was facing that classical music mecca and bowing from the waist, palms pressed together and fingers pointing skyward as if in prayer.

”I was saying, ‘One day, please, I will stand on that stage and conduct an orchestra,” Heyward said. “Please. One day.”

One day came this week.

Heyward claimed his right to preside over the world’s most important stages when he walked out of the wings of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in Manhattan for two sold-out concerts on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The stakes for the pair of performances were high. In the fall of 2023, Heyward is poised to become the only Black American classical music conductor leading a major U.S. symphony orchestra.

But his Lincoln Center debut in a program featuring superstar violinist Joshua Bell wasn’t just triumphant. It was thrilling.

Heyward gave the nearly 1,000 people attending each night’s concert a high-speed, jolting, heart-pounding roller coaster ride.

Critic George Loomis noted in The Financial Times newspaper that Heyward’s performance leading the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra wasn’t flawless. But Loomis concluded that the young conductor who just celebrated his 30th birthday is “clearly a major talent” and added: “Baltimore is in for an adventure.”

Despite the orchestra’s name, the program included not one whit of Mozart‘s music. What it did contain was two short works by Black American composers: Carlos Simon’s “Fate Now Conquers” and Florence Price’s “Adoration.”

But the two main attractions were Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 and the 19th century Belgian composer Henri Vieuxtemps’ Violin Concerto No. 5.

”This was a really, really important moment tonight for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra,” Mark Hanson, the BSO’s president and CEO, told about 30 donors, trustees and orchestra staff members at a post-concert reception Wednesday in New York.

He noted that Lincoln Center, home of the New York Philharmonic, Metropolitan Opera and New York City Ballet, is the world’s largest cultural arts complex. If the Big Apple is the nation’s capital for the performing arts, Lincoln Center is its core.

“So many careers have been propelled by successful debuts at Lincoln Center,” Hanson said.

“And what a big splash Jonathon has made,” he added. “But this won’t affect just his career — it will also help build the reputation of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra not only locally but nationally and internationally.”

Heyward said in a post-concert interview that he normally begins preparing for upcoming concerts about three months before the performance dates. He began studying the scores for his Lincoln Center debut in May.

He wakes up each morning at 5 a.m. and is at his desk by 6 a.m. He’ll work on one score for a few hours, then put it down and switch to another. At noon, Heyward puts aside his creative work and switches to the business of managing his career. The next morning, he’ll pick up the score where he left off.

“I try to get underneath a piece,” he said. “I have found that I need to go slow and steady, to let it marinate.”

When Heyward gets stymied by a tricky part of the score, he often heads to the beach near his London home. He has found that rhythmic, repetitive physical activity can loosen whatever has gotten stuck in his brain.

“Both my wife and I are open-water swimmers,” he said.

Those three months of preparation had their first test during Heyward’s recent three pre-concert rehearsals with the orchestra. That was all it took, he said, to fend off the jitters.

“I knew 10 minutes into the first rehearsal that this was an orchestra that understood my language,” he said. “That’s when magic can happen.”

The audiences in New York couldn’t seem to get enough of Heyward. Perhaps the audience’s response on each night was partly an expression of their joy at being back in the music hall after two years of pandemic-induced closures.

But that doesn’t fully explain their enthusiasm. One longtime concertgoer said that ticket-buyers on both nights behaved in ways atypical for jaded New Yorkers.

For instance, the marquee name on the program clearly was Bell’s. (Film lovers know him as the guy who played those beautiful solos in 1998′s “The Red Violin.”) Nonetheless, almost no one left Tully Hall after the violinist wrapped up his two solos midway through each evening.

And though the concerts took place on weeknights, the audience called the conductor back for three standing ovations. There likely would have been a fourth, except that the crew turned on the house lights.

“My experience is that when you attend a concert in New York, people are in a hurry to leave and run out as soon as it’s over,” said Judy Phares of Baltimore, a BSO trustee. “I was really impressed at how long people stayed and how they applauded and applauded. It was like a rock star had just left the stage.”

Based on the audience response, the highlight of the program was Vieuxtemps’ violin concerto.

Concertos are by their nature showcases for soloists, and Bell is an intense performer who plays the violin with every muscle in his body, cradling his violin so that it seems part of his arm. When the music was at its most frenetic, Bell sawed away with his bow so savagely at that pricey fiddle that a viewer half-expected to see him draw blood from his arm.

But what was remarkable about this performance was that it wasn’t solely a star turn. It became a partnership between a virtuoso violinist and a gifted conductor at the start of his career.

After the concert, Bell said he appreciated how much effort Heyward put into mastering the the Vieuxtemps’ score. Many conductors give concertos short shrift, Bell said, preferring to focus their energies on symphonies, where the conductor and not the soloist shines.

“Everyone has an ego,” Bell said, “but Jonathon doesn’t let his ego get in the way. He has a joy in music-making and he cares about every note. I was impressed with the way he thought through every concept.”

The Vieuxtemps concerto is full of passages that present formidable technical challenges to a violinist, which is why Bell wanted to perform it.

For long and tense minutes, Bell and Heyward locked gazes. They barely broke eye contact. It was as if they were roped together and trying to scale an invisible, impossibly tall mountain. They hauled each other up hand over hand, knowing that any misstep could end in catastrophe.

When it was all over and both men improbably had made it safely through, they threw their arms around one another in a hug that appeared as spontaneous as it was heartfelt.

Once the music stopped, the first sound to come from the audience was barely louder than a whisper. A thousand people murmured together, “Ohhh…”

And then they exploded.