Conductor Jonathon Heyward is poised to make history in NYC and Baltimore

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By Dan Sears

Jonathon Heyward is a conductor whose star is swiftly rising — and he’s about to assume a prominent new position in New York City.

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Heyward, who turned 31 last week, was born in Charleston, South Carolina. He started his musical career as a cellist when he was 10, and soon added conducting to his repertoire. He now has led orchestras across the country and around the globe, and in 2021 became the chief conductor of the Northwest German Philharmonic.

This fall, Heyward takes on the role of music director at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, succeeding New York City native Marin Alsop, the first woman to become the music director of a major U.S. orchestra. In assuming his post, Heyward will become the first music director of color in that institution’s 106-year history.

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Last summer, Heyward made his Lincoln Center debut conducting the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra in a pair of concerts with violin superstar Joshua Bell at Alice Tully Hall. He clearly made an impression, because he’s now been appointed the next music director for the orchestra, which is poised to get a new name and mission next year.

“Jonathon has a keen sense for responsive and relevant programs that expand the boundaries of classical music and are welcoming to returning and new audiences alike,” Lincoln Center Chief Artistic Director Shanta Thake said in a media statement announcing Heyward’s appointment. “I look forward to closely collaborating with him to build on the orchestra’s legacy and further integrate the ensemble into Lincoln Center’s overall vision and community.”

Before then, Heyward will conduct the ensemble in two concerts this Friday and Saturday, Aug. 4 and 5, at David Geffen Hall. He recently spoke with “Weekend All Things Considered” host Tiffany Hanssen about his plans and mission, now and for the future. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tiffany Hanssen: When you conducted the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra last summer for your Lincoln Center debut, something special must have happened. Describe it for us.

Jonathon Heyward: Well, it’s one of these things as a conductor which is always really, really exciting about working with an orchestra that just clicks, you know, this amazing chemistry. Suddenly, you know almost from the first downbeat of the first rehearsal that it’s going to be an exciting week, an exciting set of concerts. And that’s exactly what happened. I will never forget the very first beginning of the Beethoven symphony that I was doing with them. It’s a breath of fresh air when that happens, and there’s so much liberty and freedom that comes with music making. So it makes me even more excited to come back to New York and do this pair of concerts very soon.

You are stepping into the role of music director for the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra next summer — although it won’t be called that anymore. The orchestra is being renamed and its mission redefined. What can you tell us about the thinking and the planning going on there?

Well, you know, the Mostly Mozart Festival of course has a rich history and a sort of incredible vision that they’ve had for many, many years, that in a lot of ways will be continued. I think what we’re trying to sort of direct the orchestra into is this exciting vision that Lincoln Center has, which is this amazing sense of intentional inclusivity: making sure that everyone feels included and a part of the performances and what is being presented at Lincoln Center. And I think that that’s what makes it an exciting and I hope would feel like a very natural evolution to this wonderful festival that has been going on for so many years.

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You are also taking over a new role at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, one of the biggest, most prominent ensembles in the U.S. How are you approaching that role? What are your main objectives there?

It’s sort of similar to my approach in New York, which is being able to figure out what the community needs from us before setting my own personal ideas. I think this is an integral part of when you’re starting a new vision, a new outlook for an organization. It’s been an exciting time, actually, to be able to get to know Baltimore — and starting to get to know New York more, and Lincoln Center more — so that everything that I program is incredibly intentional and very relative to the community at large.

You mention it’s an exciting time for you, but it’s also a time when a lot of orchestras across the country are still struggling to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, rebuilding, growing their audiences again. How do you view your role in helping to address that problem?

I think what we can all take from this time, as live performers, is the great power of being in a concert hall, of being in theaters, being in opera houses. Having that taken away, I think, has really made me realize and appreciate the great responsibility of community, and this idea of being able to support our communities culturally. Getting back to the concert halls, and getting people comfortable again, is a huge part of how we program what we’re programming.

I like to be an optimist as much as I possibly can, and in a way, I think it was probably a good thing to be able to have a reflection of what it’s like not to have it, and then suddenly go back into it with fresh eyes, fresh new ideas and a sort of invigoration of purpose. This amazing art form of classical music has so much power and purpose in any community, I believe.

You describe yourself as an optimist, but when you head into the role of music director at Baltimore, you’re not just the music director or an optimist; you’re also a fundraiser, you’re the public face of the organization, you’re an ambassador of sorts. How do you prepare for those kinds of responsibilities?

I don’t know if I necessarily quote-unquote prepare myself for it, but what I am constantly trying to be aware of is that we are serving a community, and that community includes donors, that community includes civic leaders. Being able to just have conversations, understand what they have seen in the past, what they want to see in the future… you know, I’ve had a lot of coffees with a lot of people. It’s actually these moments where I get a little bit of insight, and for me, that’s enough to be able to understand the exciting potential and vision that an organization the size and value of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra can have.

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You are the first music director of color at the Baltimore Symphony, and one among just a handful of conductors in positions of prominence. I wonder if that plays into how you approach the job, or how you envision what you’ll do there?

Well, it’s a lot of responsibility when you put it like that, isn’t it? [Laughs] But it’s the greatest privilege of my life, really, to be able to be responsible for an organization of this size. Of course, as a music director, I’m really thinking about how that responsibility is presented onstage, and what that looks like — and what that even means.

The biggest part of my interest, really, is the concept and idea of making sure that we continue the evolution of classical music. So being able to present new voices, underrepresented voices onstage with, yes, of course, the warhorses we all love and admire: Beethoven, Brahms, everyone that we’ve all fallen in love with in order to enjoy this, this wonderful art form — but, you know, compared with some of the greatest voices that are on the stage today.

Being able to marry these two — the new with the old, if you will — is something that I’m really passionate about. Again, that responsibility I talked about, the responsibility of continuing the evolution, the natural progression, of where the classical music art form is going is an important part of my artistic dream and vision, and certainly as well important to the Baltimore Symphony and Lincoln Center.

Before you take on Baltimore, before you take on your new role at Lincoln Center next year, you’ve got these two concerts coming up with the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra. Tell us what you’ve got planned.

It’s sort of a place-based program, in that we start with Jessie Montgomery’s piece “Records from a Vanishing City,” which is all about her life in Lower East [Side] Manhattan, in the times when she was growing up in the 1980s, 1990s — the sort of musical bustlings, if you will, of her experience growing up there. And it’s then sandwiched with Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony, the Third Symphony, which of course is inspired by Robert Schumann’s time in Germany, very close to the Rhine, the river that is so very famous in Germany.

This sort of programmatic, thematic idea of places is what makes the storytelling of this program really, really exciting. And of course, it’s an added bonus to have my dear friend Simone Lamsma playing the Barber Violin Concerto, which in itself is really a wonderfully picturesque piece that can certainly put you in certain places in the world. So the program is really about spaces and different times.

Jonathon Heyward conducts the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra at David Geffen Hall on Friday, Aug. 4, and Saturday, Aug. 5; more details here.

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