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Incoming Baltimore Symphony music director living a dream nurtured in Charleston's public schools

Jonathon Heyward holds a conductor's baton between his hands. He is wearing a white shirt and navy jacket, and is smiling at the camera.
Jonathon Heyward

Conductor Jonathon Heyward shares how his rise in the world of classical music started with arts education in the South Carolina county where he grew up.

In this Sonatas & Soundscapes interview that aired Thursday, August 18th, conductor Jonathon Heyward speaks with host Bradley Fuller about his musical beginnings in South Carolina. A native of Charleston, Heyward was announced Music Director Designate of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in July.

BRADLEY FULLER: Given the press and rave reviews he’s received lately, it may seem like conductor Jonathon Heyward is in the midst of a meteoric rise to fame. The South Carolina native was named Music Director Designate of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in July, and when he officially takes up the baton as leader of the orchestra in the Fall of 2023, Heyward will become the first person of color in that role in the organization’s 107-year history. Not to mention—with his 30th birthday only recently behind him, he will be one of the youngest music directors of a major American orchestra, too. But as Heyward could tell you, all that success depends on years of hard work and a strong foundation—a foundation that was, as he sees it, provided by the public school system in the county where he grew up. Recently, I had the chance to speak with the rising star about his musical beginnings in the Charleston area and the difference arts education can make. Here’s that conversation:

FULLER: Jonathon, a huge congratulations on being selected as the next music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra!

JONATHON HEYWARD: Thank you very much. I’m really, really, looking forward to this appointment.

FULLER: I can say there’s been a bit of a buzz here in your home state, but how does it feel for you personally?

HEYWARD: Well, this position is something that I dreamed about when I first started conducting, really. And all those dreams came from Charleston. Really, the birthplace of all of this passion and drive for becoming a music director of a major symphony orchestra really started in Charleston. So, for me to be able to achieve this goal with such an immense and wonderful arts organization like the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is truly a dream come true.

FULLER: You got your start in Charleston, you said—that’s your hometown. And you really learned music not through a very musical family as you’ve said, but through the school system?

HEYWARD: Absolutely. If it wasn’t for the C.E. Williams Middle School program that I attended as a string player and then, later on, the Charleston County School of the Arts, I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today. And I owe a lot to the public music school systems in Charleston County.

FULLER: Could you recount just a bit of that journey? When you first picked up an instrument, when you decided, you know, “Hey, I want to take this a bit further,” and then when you stumbled upon or either really landed squarely in conducting?

HEYWARD: Yeah, so it all started—really, actually, at the very, very beginning was my sort of choral career, if you will, which lasted all of one year. I was in 5th grade at the Orange Grove Elementary School and I really did not do a very good job on a solo one day. Forgot the lyrics entirely. And my mother very kindly thought maybe it would be a good idea to switch to another department. So, we went to the string department as I went then to C.E. Williams Middle School. And they had an amazing string program there with Ms. Hershenson, who was my string teacher. And I picked up the cello kind of by default, actually. I was going to pick up the violin, but I saw the line out the door for the day to pick up our instruments, and decided that, since no one else was in the cello line, that actually, the cello would be instrument. And that very serendipitous moment really changed the course of my life entirely, actually. And then I auditioned and got accepted to the Charleston County School of the Arts. Was waitlisted originally, actually. And then one month before I got accepted, went into the program, and became a part of the middle school string orchestra.

There was one day in my 8th grade year that the string teacher was ill. We had a great substitute teacher but the teacher wasn’t musical. So, he thought it would be a good idea for us to go through the music but as a student conductor run rehearsal. And so, he put all of our names in a hat, shuffled it around, and picked my name as one of several. And I was a very shy person. I certainly didn’t want to go up and do it. But what I fell in love with immediately was the score—the piece of paper that the conductor reads. And for me that’s still my obsession today. And that was really the start of this idea that I wanted to become an orchestral conductor. But if it weren’t for these two very serendipitous moments, I really wouldn’t be where I am today.

Jonathon Heyward studying a score
Laura Thiesbrummel
Jonathon Heyward studying a score

FULLER: A really remarkable line of events there. I’m just here in awe thinking about all the close calls or near misses that led up to this moment for you. There’s a little about the past, so now turning more to the future—the immediate future—you don’t become full music director of the Baltimore Symphony until next fall, but do you already have some ideas for programming and filling out the season?

HEYWARD: Absolutely. We were already working, even long before the announcement, on the 2023-2024 season, which will be my first official season as the music director. As music director designate, I look forward to two weeks of concerts with the orchestra with a week in between of some very fun and interesting programs with our education department. So, I’m certainly looking forward to getting back on the podium with these wonderful musicians in Baltimore.

FULLER: You mentioned the education department playing a role. Are you hoping to give back and inspire younger musicians as you were once inspired?

HEYWARD: Well, absolutely. It’s kind of quintessential of my work. And, you know, one huge reflection for me while the coronavirus was going was—how can I make a difference? What can I do as a leader, as an artistic visionary, to be able to give back? And, of course, education is complete and utter top priority. What’s very exciting is that the Baltimore Symphony has already implemented some of my hugest aspirations for what classical music can look like in an education system. Marin Alsop, of course, has a lot to do with this, with her founding of the BSO OrchKids, and I look forward to expanding and developing this alongside her vision and with the musicians of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

FULLER: And I should say that’s Marin Alsop, the [outgoing] music director of the symphony.

HEYWARD: Yes, that’s correct.

FULLER: Well, say there’s another young kid in Charleston, or Orangeburg, or Pickens, South Carolina, who’s just picking up a cello or sitting down at the piano for the first time. What advice would you give them?

HEYWARD: Well, I think the most important thing at the beginning is to realize your capability. To realize that this music—this art form—is for everyone. And to be able to recognize that that could be your future—that could be anyone’s future—is, I think, the of the utmost importance at the very beginning of one’s career.

FULLER: It seems to be a realization that you’ve developed and taken to heart as the incoming conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Jonathon, thanks so much for taking the time to share today. It’s really been great caching up and again, congratulations.

HEYWARD: Many thanks. Thank you very much.

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Originally from Greenwood, SC, Bradley Fuller has maintained a deep interest in classical music since the age of six. With piano lessons throughout grade school and involvement in marching and concert bands on the saxophone, Bradley further developed musical abilities as well as an appreciation for the importance of arts education.