New symphony director breaks ground in Baltimore in signature Chuck Taylors

Jonathon Heyward’s career is full of accomplishments, but it has also been marked by what he describes as “serendipitous moments.”

Heyward, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s new musical director, 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 violin.

“The violin line was completely out the door and no one was in the cello line,” Heyward said. “I was ready to go home.”

Heyward said this brief moment of childhood impatience expanded into a love of the instrument, setting him on a path that would lead to making history. Heyward is the first Black music director in the BSO’s 107-year existence, and at age 31, its youngest too. His appointment is meaningful in a city that is more than 60% Black.

“In the year 2023, I didn’t think I would be saying 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 enhanced by finding “the sense of community that music brings,” he said. “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.”

Another serendipitous moment led him to conduct in eighth grade, when a substitute teacher decided to select a student’s name out of a hat to lead the class orchestra.

“Guess who got picked?” Heyward said. “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 said he was enamored by the concept of unity in an orchestra, a call back to his original love of the cello.

The conductor’s passion for community and bridging the gap pervades both his work and his clothes. It’s how he earned his nickname, the “Converse Conductor.”

Heyward started wearing his classic red Chuck Taylors onstage after forgetting his formal dress shoes for a concert while he was working as the assistant conductor for The Hallé orchestra in Manchester, England. This mishap turned into a chance for connection. Heyward said the audience could not get enough of his bright-red shoes. Plus, Heyward said, the unconventional choice was simply more comfortable. He now owns about 15 pairs.

Naturally, Heyward wore his signature Converse sneakers during his three-concert tour weekend in September, which kicked off his five-year engagement as the BSO’s music director.

“What’s amazing to see is how many people who 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 Theatre of Harlem and Baltimore’s OrchKids program, 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 was given as a young performer.

“I felt like I could do it because I had amazing supporters. I had amazing educators. To be able to pass that baton, no pun intended, or pun intended, it’s vital,” Heyward said.