Rhinegold Photo credit: Jeremy Ayres Fischer

Toby Deller

Meet the Maestro: Jonathon Heyward

9:00, 14th June 2016

The latest young conductor to be appointed Sir Mark Elder’s assistant at the Hallé talks to Toby Deller

‘The legacy of assistant conductors there is phenomenal: other conductors who’ve been doing fantastic jobs,’ says Jonathon Heyward, the latest young conductor to be appointed as Sir Mark Elder’s assistant at the Hallé, taking over from Jamie Phillips. ‘And I’m thrilled. The beauty of it all is that Sir Mark is incredibly warm and he’s passionate about young conductors. That is so great at the stage where I am right now.’

That, at least as far as his career is concerned, is in the final year of a two-year conducting master’s at the Royal Academy of Music in London under the supervision of Sian Edwards – a ‘brilliant mastermind’ in his words. He had barely finished the first when, as a 23-year-old from the USA, he won the 2015 International Competition for Young Conductors at Besançon in France. Young in this case means between 16 and 35, so Heyward was not only towards the junior end of the range but also short on professional experience: the two professional competition orchestras, from Basel and Besançon, were his first. But his conducting roots go some way back.

‘I started playing cello when I was in fifth grade [age ten to 11] in the States and then I picked up conducting two, three years after that. I was in middle school and I did this one-off rehearsal with my friends and colleagues, and I was really hooked from that rehearsal on. I was always fascinated by the score and still am, seeing how, playing the cello you have one line but you have five lines in a string orchestra. I remember being fascinated at how these pieces of puzzle came together and made a score.’

From the Charleston County School of the Arts in South Carolina he won a scholarship to the Boston Conservatory as a cellist, although he always had it in mind, ultimately, to pursue conducting.

‘Playing in the orchestra of the Boston Conservatory was probably some of the best conducting lessons that I’ve had. As a musician in various orchestras, I played at the conservatory, I played in and around the area, I played opera and dance and symphonic work, I played principal, I was last, I was in the middle. Getting that experience under so many different conductors, and seeing how they connected with the music, it was really exceptional. And boy, was I taking note of it! I would be that guy who had a mini score, thinking about why certain things may not have worked, why he did a fantastic job and the orchestra sounded fantastic, what made that happen. I was definitely that guy, trying to figure it out.’

Watching a production of Don Giovanni there, midway through his undergraduate studies, sparked an immediate desire to get involved in opera. ‘It was my first opera that I ever saw, live – in good old Charleston we don’t have an opera company – and I was blown away by it. I was so excited and I remember going straight to my room and typing an email to say: if you ever need an assistant, please let me know. I had always heard recordings, but it was so powerful to be there for the first time. That led to a position, essentially, with the opera department there.’

He has followed up his interest, since coming to London, through his involvement with Hampstead Garden Opera (HGO), a small company that gave him the opportunity to conduct that Mozart for himself in a staged small theatre production in Highgate, earlier in 2016. Although he aims to combine both symphonic and operatic work in his career – ‘I’d love to do all the Britten operas, crossing my fingers [he has assisted on Albert Herring in Boston and with HGO] and I’d love to do all the Shostakovich symphonies’ – it is clear, having seen him at close quarters during the rehearsals, that he enjoys the critical role of music director with all the demands on his attention that it involves.

‘Of course with the director it’s a partnership, and hopefully a good one, but you really are overseeing a lot of it. That’s a part I enjoy, and I love working with singers. A lot of people struggle with it but the beautiful thing is their instrument is inside them. You have to be able to try to speak to them in a way that it can resonate, it can blossom because it’s all mental, it’s physical, it’s emotional, it’s everything. It’s a very delicate instrument and you have to be careful about what you say and how you say it. Whereas with a violin, they can still play whether they are angry with you or not! And still play well.’

2010 Begins undergraduate studies Boston Conservatory
2012-14 Assistant conductor, Boston Conservatory opera department
2014 Begins master of conducting studies, Royal Academy of Music
2015 First prize, Besançon International Competition for Young Conductors
2016 Appointed assistant conductor at the Hallé for two years

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