Jonathon Heyward, 31, has made history as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s youngest and first Black music director in the orchestra’s 107-year history.
At the age of ten, the young pathfinder began his musical career. He only played the cello because there were too many violin students at his performing arts school in Charleston, South Carolina.
Heyward told NBC News, “The violin line was completely out the door and no one was in the cello line. I was ready to go home.”
“I picked up the cello in the fifth grade and instantly felt a part of something… You are creating something bigger than one person. I think that’s the beauty of the unity that you get from that classical music form.”
This was a watershed point in his life, his love of music, and his achievements thus far.Heyward’s first contact with conducting came in eighth school, when a replacement teacher chose a student’s name from a hat to direct the class orchestra.
“Guess who got picked? To my sort of embarrassment, I didn’t like standing up 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 expressed.
The pioneer revealed that he was intrigued with the concept of orchestral togetherness, which is reinforced by discovering “the sense of community that music brings.”
He told Baltimore Magazine, “The idea that you can make one sound out of so many different voices, that’s still something that really inspires me today. And I think it’s what makes classical music so powerful, actually.”
He was so taken with it that he would go home and read the scores for pleasure. He eventually enrolled as a cellist at Berklee’s Boston Conservatory, where he told his lecturer that what he truly wanted to do was direct. By his junior year, he had been appointed as the school’s opera department’s assistant conductor.
In 2014, he was accepted to the Royal Academy of Music to study conducting, which changed everything for him. Aside from his many accomplishments, the outlet observed that his love for community and bridge-building pervades both his profession and his clothing, giving him the moniker “Converse Conductor.”
Heyward began wearing his trademark red Chuck Taylors onstage after forgetting his formal dress shoes for a concert while working as the Hallé Orchestra’s assistant conductor in Manchester, England.
The audience couldn’t get enough of his bright red shoes, which he now owns approximately 15 pairs of, thus the blunder turned into an opportunity for connection. Heyward said that the odd decision was simply more comfortable.
“In the year 2023, I didn’t think I would be saying that: ‘the first African American music director. It’s a testament that work needs to be done,” he remarked.
Heyward hopes to use his youth to attract more young people to the symphony orchestra scene.