‘There is always hope’: How a childhood dream became a reality for Jonathon Heyward, the BSO’s new musical director

CHARLESTON, S.C. — In the June 2010 issue of Applause, his high school magazine, senior Jonathon Heyward wrote that by 2020 his “huge overall dream is to become music director of a major symphony orchestra.”

“Well,” Heyward, said earlier this month, while visiting the Charleston County School of the Arts, “I was three years late. But here we are.”


In September, Heyward will become the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s top baton. Since music director appointments are made years in advance, Heyward will likely be the only Black conductor leading one of the nation’s largest classical orchestras — and just the second in U.S. history. At age 31 this fall, he also will be the youngest.

That long-ago prediction hints at the personal qualities that propelled Heyward to the top in record time. It suggests his focus and drive, his confidence, his formidable work ethic.


As a college student, Heyward attended classes during the day at the Boston Conservatory, was assistant conductor of the student opera at night and worked the graveyard shift at a diner.

“I would get home at 5 a.m.,” Heyward said. “I learned to take 20-minute power naps during the day. Each nap would leave me refreshed for about two hours. Then I would crash.”

Jonathon Heyward was part of the 2010 class of Charleston County School of the Arts in South Carolina.

But talent and effort alone don’t guarantee success. How did the son of a waitress and chef, a young man without early exposure to classical music, a kid from a family occasionally without money for the electric bill — let alone music lessons — beat the odds?

When Heyward recently made a rare return trip to South Carolina to conduct his hometown orchestra, The Baltimore Sun joined him as he visited his elementary and high schools, ate at the diner where his mother worked, and rehearsed with musicians he had revered since he was 14.

We found people who performed kindnesses so small they forgot they had done them, people willing to barter music lessons for babysitting, people who said yes when they could have said no. These were modest good deeds that took root in unexpected ways. Over time, they changed a life.

“I had an incredible support system,” Heyward said. “So many caring people gathered around me from a really young age. I wouldn’t have gotten where I am today without them.”

He figures there are thousands of Jonathon Heywards in the world who got a boost when they need one: bus drivers and firefighters, good parents and contributing citizens.

“There is always hope,” Heyward said. “You don’t have to remain stuck in your circumstances. If you work hard and set your dreams and goals, you can make it out somehow.”

Jonathon Heyward and Peter O’Malley look up to a projected picture of Heyward conducting the high school symphony orchestra in his senior year at the Charleston County School of the Arts.

‘An easy kid to want to help’

Heyward grew up in Charleston, a city where palm tree fronds waft in the breeze like extended hands.

Today, the Charleston County School of the Arts is a sprawling, immaculate complex of clay-colored brick and limestone. But from 2003 to 2010, when Heyward was a student, the school was a bunch of trailers parked in muddy fields that often flooded.

“We called it Lake SOA [School for the Arts],” Heyward said, the corners of his mouth twitching up in a smile. “Some kids crossed campus in kayaks.

“But what I loved about the campus is that it had soul.”

In 2003, a 10-year-old Heyward had been studying the cello for three months when he auditioned for the sixth grade class. Susan Mears oversaw the auditions, and couldn’t justify awarding one of 20 places to a youngster playing, she recalled, “at a very low level.”

But something about Jonathon’s audition kept nudging at Mears’ conscience.


“It was the way he held that instrument,” she said. “He wasn’t tentative. He had confidence and command.”

She knew each year without better training would put new obstacles in his path until, eventually, the pile became too big to surmount. Mears kept Heyward on the school’s waitlist — but put him first in line.

“One month before school started, someone dropped out and I got in,” Heyward said.

Mears recalls Heyward’s leadership potential was evident from day one.

“I give students the opportunity to direct the orchestra for five or 10 minutes in scales and warm-ups,” she said. “Jonathon kept asking, ‘Can I lead the orchestra today? If I said, ‘No,’ he’d say, “How about tomorrow?’ And the next day, he’d remind me, ‘You said I could lead the orchestra today.’

“He was very ... ” A smile warms Mears’ eyes as she chooses the next word: “persistent.”


By eighth grade, Heyward was “directing the orchestra once or twice a week for 30 minutes” she said, and the students accepted him as their leader.

It was Heyward who gathered students to perform at the home of Jack Day, a gravely ill substitute teacher who had given the teen his first conducting opportunity.

Ann-Marie Fairchild, Day’s niece and Heyward’s former math teacher, tears up telling the story.

“Jonathon had put together a string quartet with some other students,” she said. “He drove for an hour to Uncle Jack’s home to perform a private concert. He went to those lengths to minister to him.”

“Two months later, Uncle Jack was dead. Jonathon played at his funeral.”

Stories like this endeared the young Heyward to adults. More than one person remarked that he was “an easy kid to want to help.”

Jonathon Heyward leading the Charleston Symphony.

‘Getting by was a privilege’

That was fortunate, since Heyward’s family was struggling. Though Heyward is the mixed-race son of a Black father and a Hungarian mother, he said his race never impeded him from advancing. Instead, the nearly insurmountable threat was the family’s precarious finances.

“We got by very minimally with government support and food stamps,” Heyward said. “I knew that even getting by was a privilege. Anything more wasn’t going to happen.”

The family’s benefactors included Daniel Carabus from the Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity, where Heyward and his brother served as altar boys.

“If we needed help with paying rent or the electric bill, we would tell Daniel and he would sort it out,” Heyward said. “Suddenly, there would be an envelope I could take home to my mom.”

The extra money paid for the necessities. But preparing for a career in classical music is like training for the Olympics: A musician must invest in equipment, intensive coaching and traveling to competitions and auditions.

Barely had young Heyward begun studying cello with Timothy O’Malley of the Charleston Symphony when the family’s strained budget threatened to end his musical education.


“We couldn’t afford lessons,” Heyward said.

Jonathon Heyward pauses the orchestra at the Charleston County School of the Arts to share notes with concertmaster Margie Moore, right, during a visit to his hometown on Jan. 4, 2023.

O’Malley refused Heyward’s request to cut back. Instead, his teacher worked out a barter system.

“I cleaned the O’Malleys’ house four nights a week,” Heyward said. “After their son was born, I was Peter’s babysitter. That family really saved us.”

O’Malley also arranged for Heyward to attend orchestra rehearsals, setting up a chair on stage behind the cellos.

“This kid just kept showing up,” said Kathy Schuh St. John, the orchestra’s second bassoonist. “He was there every day for our afternoon rehearsal. I would think, ‘Why isn’t he in school?’”

During one rehearsal of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 “Pathétique,” St. John noticed that Heyward only had the score for the cello.


“I had a full score,” St. John said. “but I didn’t need it, so I gave it to Jonathon. I didn’t think much about it.”

For an aspiring conductor, the gift was a godsend.

“It was the first score I ever owned,” Heyward said. “Now I could follow along and see what the whole orchestra was playing.”

Heyward still has that the booklet, its corners now soft and worn. He brought it back to Charleston earlier this month when he led the orchestra in two performances of the “Pathétique.”

“Kathy is an important part of my story,” he said.

Heyward will conduct the “Pathétique” at the BSO in May as the orchestra’s music director-designate.


‘My solace and my comfort’

A lot of people were in the young musician’s corner.

He and his athletic younger brother, Anthony, grew up in a large, boisterous family of aunts and cousins. Someone was always available to babysit, take the boys crabbing or to applaud their performance at concerts and sporting events.

The boys’ mother, Susan Heyward, made sure their time was occupied: at church, in the diner where they worked after school and on weekends, in the Boy Scouts.

“I have strong opinions about what is right,” she said. “If you don’t keep them busy, it’s easy to stray.”

Heyward’s parents divorced when he was 12. A few years later, the conductor’s father fell ill and in 2020, he died.

“Music came along at just the right time in my life,” Heyward said. “It was my solace and my comfort. It was always there for me.”


So was his mother. Susan Heyward kept her family from collapsing by sheer force of will.

“She hid it from me for a very long time,” Heyward said, “but there were bill collectors knocking on the door wanting to take my cello back because we couldn’t make the payments.”

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His mother feared that would devastate her son.

“Music wasn’t a hobby for him,” she said. “It was necessary for his life. I went to the repo man and said, ‘I will do anything if you let him keep that cello. I will come by your office every day after work and give you all of my tips.’”

Jonathon Heyward embraces his former high school orchestra teacher Sarah Fitzgerald.

The repo man relented.

Through Heyward’s formative years, those small acts of grace accumulated. Over time, they achieved a critical mass that propelled him to the Boston Conservatory, the Royal Academy of Music in London and to music director appointments at orchestras in England and Germany and finally, in Baltimore.


One night this fall, Heyward will prepare to take the podium for the first time as the BSO’s music director. He’ll put on a new pair of the Converse sneakers with which he celebrates major debuts. He’ll eat a light meal and begin the preconcert ritual he calls his “golden hour.”

It begins with a 20-minute power nap, followed by a brief mental rehearsal. For the final 20 minutes, Heyward concentrates on his feet. He focuses on the support coming up from the floorboards through his soles and rising to the top of his head. Only then will he be ready to weave the sounds of the orchestra together, making one unified voice from many.

“It’s very important,” Heyward said, “to be fully grounded before you take the stage.”

Jonathon Heyward guest conducting the symphony orchestra at the Charleston County School of the Arts, his alma mater in South Carolina.