Jonathon Heyward’s career is full of achievements, but it has also been marked by what he describes as “serendipitous moments.”
Heyward, the new music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, said he started playing the cello at age 10 because there were too many students at his performing arts school in Charleston, South Carolina, who wanted to play the violin.
“The violin row was completely outside and there was no one in the cello row,” Heyward said. “I was ready to go home.”
Heyward said this brief moment of childhood impatience expanded into a love for the instrument, setting him on a path that would lead him to make history. Heyward is the first black music director in the BSO’s 107 years of existence and, at 31, also the youngest. His appointment is significant in a city that is more than 60% black.
“In the year 2023, I didn’t think I’d say that: ‘the first African-American music director,’” Heyward said. “It’s a testament that work needs to be done.”
His early interest in orchestral music was reinforced by discovering “the sense of community that music brings,” he said. “I took up the cello in fifth grade and instantly felt like a part of something. …You are creating something bigger than just one person. “I think that’s the beauty of the unity you get from that form of classical music.”
Another serendipitous moment led him to conducting in eighth grade, when a substitute teacher decided to select a student’s name from a hat to conduct the class orchestra.
“Guess who was chosen?” Heyward said. “To my shame, I didn’t like standing in front of my peers and being in charge at all. But what I fell in love with was the idea of the score.”
Heyward said he was in love with the concept of unity in an orchestra, a call to his original love of the cello.
The director’s passion for community and closing gaps permeates both his work and his clothing. This is how he earned his nickname “Talk Driver.”
Heyward began wearing his classic red Chuck Taylors on stage after forgetting his formal dress shoes for a concert while working as assistant conductor of the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester, England. This mishap became an opportunity to connect. Heyward said the public couldn’t get enough of his bright red shoes. Plus, Heyward said, the unconventional choice was simply more convenient. He now owns about 15 pairs.
Naturally, Heyward wore his signature Converse sneakers during the weekend of his three-concert tour in September, which kicked off his five-year commitment as musical director of the BSO.
“What’s surprising is how many people decided to wear Converse instead of high heels!” Heyward said.
Many in the audience traveled to witness history in the making. Heyward shared the stage with the Dance Theater of Harlem and the OrchKids program of Baltimore, which seeks to expand access to classical music to students in Baltimore City schools. Heyward said he advocates for programs like OrchKids because they remind him of the opportunities he had as a young artist.
“I felt like I could do it because I had such an incredible following. I had incredible educators. Being able to pass that baton, no pun intended, is vital,” Heyward said.
“The sky is the limit.”
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