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IDAGIO meets ... Jonathon Heyward

IDAGIO talks to conductor Jonathon Heyward ahead of his debut with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Jonathon Heyward (© Jeremy Ayres Fischer)

Jonathon Heyward is Chief Conductor Designate of the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie and has been hailed as one of the most exciting conducting talents of his generation. On September 30 he makes his debut with the London Symphony Orchestra, conducting a programme, available to watch exclusively in IDAGIO's Global Concert Hall, featuring Dvořák's ever-popular "New World" Symphony and Stravinsky's neo-classical Pulcinella Suite. IDAGIO caught up with him to talk about the concert, communicating to audiences and the essential role of music education. 

How does it feel to be making your LSO debut in these unusual times?  

It's the first concert I've done since March 6, and that was at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, with my orchestra, the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie. I feel very lucky, and am glad that we have a rehearsal especially to get used to the social distancing, which of course is something that the orchestra is adapting to, and which I very much have to adapt to as well. 

Why did you choose these two works, Dvořák's "New World" Symphony and Stravinsky's Pulcinella?  

I find both works have a sense of looking back while also projecting forward to modern ideas. For the Pulcinella it's obvious that Stravinsky is looking back to Pergolesi and modernizing the original ideas from Pergolesi's opera. But he does it so cleverly, in such an amazing way, that it enhances the drama – and not only in the suite, which we're doing, but in the complete ballet. He really, for me, gets to the core of the drama of this comic story of Pulcinella. 

The Dvořák continues this idea of looking back before going forward. I think the reason why Dvořák's Ninth Symphony is such a kind of heartbeat masterpiece in the repertoire is how relatable it is, and how relatable the narrative is. And for me, the very beginning is very much about storytelling, giving us a little glimpse of the whole piece, the whole symphony to come. Looking back before going forward is something that I was interested in in these two pieces, and what brings them together both dramatically and compositionally. 

Jonathon Heyward (© Jeremy Ayres Fischer)

Do you think those are characteristics that we can hear differently in the times that we're in now?

Absolutely. That's another reason why I'm always thinking about what we need to hear, what we need to play in this very odd, surreal life that we're all living now. And I think this idea of the "New World", this kaleidoscope of expressions Dvořák is able to guide in at such a deep level is what makes it such a great piece to do now more than ever. 

I've studied the work a lot and have an old score of it. But I decided to get a new one for this concert, completely without markings. I think I've heard the symphony in different ways, because of what's been going on around the world – that's the purity of art and interpretation. 

What do you expect from these unusual circumstances, with the orchestra observing social distancing? 

Dvořák would never have guessed that his piece would be played like this, with 2 meters between musicians! And that will add a whole different aspect to the piece. Emotionally it will certainly be a different journey. I certainly hope it won't just be another Dvořák Nine. 

How do you feel about the fact the audience will mainly be "attending" digitally from around the world?

I don't know what to expect, but what I love is the fact that platforms like IDAGIO have really done so well in trying to bring music to people. And the sole reason I love what I do as a conductor is to be able to share this music with audience members. Whether it's live or thousands of miles away on a broadcast doesn't really matter to me. I think the idea of connection is so essential, but to me it's not going to be very different.  

In announcing the season, Simon Rattle said how excited he was to have you conducting the LSO. How far back does your relationship with him go? 

It certainly doesn't go back a long way. I've always been inspired by him and I remember his Beethoven recordings were some of my most sacred possessions when I was growing up. Sadly I've never actually met him, but I hope that changes soon! I am so deeply inspired by his work and what he's done for classical music all around the world. 

Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke's (© Kevin Leighton)

One thing you and he have in common is a focus on educational work, something that is surely more important than ever… 

I am a product of three music classes in my local school. Without that, without being able to pick a free instrument up from the public school system in South Carolina, I would not be where I am today – it's quite simple. So, having known that, and having appreciated the opportunities that I was given, it's something that I'm constantly aware of, and constantly fighting for, by writing letters, speaking out, doing talks and doing the work myself. And now, with the economic crisis that's looming, people need to understand that it's not just an extra-curricular activity: it deserves to be part of the curriculum. 

Final question: If you got a phone call after this concert offering you carte blanche to conduct any work with the LSO, what would it be? 

Oh wow! I'm a huge lover of the Shostakovich symphonies, so I would actually jump on the opportunity to do any of them. Any Shostakovich, sign me up! If I had to pick one, though: Shostakovich 10. That would be amazing with this orchestra. I'm not sure we'd all fit in to St. Luke's though!

Jonathon Heyward's LSO debut at LSO St Luke's is streamed live on September 30 in the Global Concert Hall, and available to watch until October 2.

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