Jonathon Heyward now youngest and 1st Black music director in Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s 107-year existence

Dollita Okine November 27, 2023
Heyward’s first experience with conducting was in eighth grade when a substitute teacher selected a student’s name out of a hat to lead the class orchestra. Photo Credit: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

At age 31, Jonathon Heyward has made history as the youngest and the first Black music director in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra‘s 107-year existence.

The young trailblazer began his music career at the age of 10. He played the cello only because there were too many students at his performing arts school in Charleston, South Carolina, who wanted to play the violin.

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 moment was pivotal for his love for music, his life for the instrument, and his accomplishments thus far. Heyward’s first experience with conducting was in eighth grade when a substitute teacher selected a student’s name out of a hat to lead 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 pacesetter disclosed that he was enamored by the concept of unity in an orchestra, which is enhanced by finding “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 loved it so much, he would go home and actually read scores for fun. Eventually, he attended the Boston Conservatory at Berklee as a cellist, where he told his professor that what he really wanted to do was conduct. By junior year, he was chosen as the assistant conductor of the school’s opera department.

After Boston, he was accepted to the Royal Academy of Music to study conducting in 2014, which changed everything. Apart from his great accomplishments, the outlet noted that his passion for community and bridging the gap pervades both his work and his clothes, earning him the nickname “Converse Conductor.”

Heyward began wearing his classic red Chuck Taylors onstage after he once forgot his formal dress shoes for a concert while he was working as the assistant conductor for the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester, England

The mistake turned into a chance for connection, as the audience could not get enough of his bright red shoes, which he now owns about 15 pairs of. Plus, Heyward said, the unconventional choice 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.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: November 27, 2023


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