Interview with Conductor, Jonathon Heyward

Interview with Conductor, Jonathon Heyward
Photo credit Laura Thiesbrummel

Hi Jonathon, thanks so much for speaking with me. How are you looking forward to your first time working with Southbank Sinfonia?

Having gone to the Royal Academy of Music, I've had a lot of colleagues who have played for the ensemble. I think it's an amazing starting point for a lot of people wanting to go into the orchestral world and it's a nice bridge from conservatoire to the professional world. I’d like to think I’m not too far away from that age group and it’s a thrilling part of one’s career, so I’m really looking forward to working with everyone there.

Congratulations on your recent Proms appearance with the National Youth Orchestra! Do you particularly enjoy working with players at these formative stages? How does it change the experience?

Absolutely. I think as a young conductor at the moment, everything that I've been doing is actually pretty much for the first time and it's often with seasoned players and seasoned orchestras who have probably played the pieces hundreds of times. To work for ensembles also doing it for the first time, it’s nice because it feels like we're exploring it together on a blank canvas, which is thrilling.

Tell me a bit about the process you went through preparing for this Rush Hour concert of ‘Unfinished’ works

It’s actually been a nice zoom out, if you will, of what unfinished works really mean and what they represent. Did the composers really want us to play these works? All these things trigger your mindset when you're trying to develop an interpretation of the work and I think it's been it's been more explorative than your standard finished symphonic work.

Particularly with the Schumann because, unlike the Schubert who didn't get to finish the work because he died, with Schumann it was just a work that he never finished and I think the difference between that is quite stark and interesting to see the progression of a young composer and a composer at the end of their life. I’ve had to tap out from a lot of outside resources rather than just dealing with what’s in front of me which is a lovely way of developing an interpretation.

Were you familiar with both the pieces before?

The Schumann I only recently stumbled across. Over lockdowns, my project was actually to look at all the Schumann symphonies because I have always found them fascinating. I succeeded in going through all of them with great care and detail, except this unknown G minor Symphony and I so I discovered it through that process. I’ve never conducted it before and to have done quite a bit of research on all the other symphonies and now to do the unfinished, it feels like a complete circle in a way! The Schubert I have quite an affinity with because it was actually the first full symphonic orchestral piece that I ever conducted at the age of fourteen, far too young to be a conductor but it’s got a special place in my heart. It’s very nice to be able to do that again as well.

Are there any standout moments in either of the pieces that you would perhaps point out to someone new to the repertoire?

There's something really magical about the second movement of the Schubert. There’s a sort of beautiful, light, ethereal colour I think Schubert achieves. It begins with this walking bass contrasted by higher bassoon and horns. I think what you see here is how well he's thinking about orchestration and that's a really great way of creating this space, having this low resonant sound from the basses with this suspenseful colour on top with instruments that don’t normally play in this register. 

The second movement is really all about atmosphere and pulling out the best sounds and tessituras of each instrument within the orchestra. There’s a beautiful solo moment in the middle for the oboe and the clarinet that feels so haunting after the major sound. That’s one of the most exciting parts for me in the concert.

What is also so interesting about this concert is the use of the panel and the debate around ‘Unfinished’ works. What are your thoughts on this debate as a conductor?

It’s a different exploration. It's a different process. It's a different way of interpreting. One has to think about this in detail, but I often think about how Da Vinci didn't finish paintings and we have a lot of his unfinished works on display in many museums. I think this is something for me that's been really fascinating, what artists define as finished and what they define as unfinished. As artists and musicians, we're all such perfectionists.

The idea of doing something finished is for something to be to the absolute goal when actually some of the unfinished works, like the Schumann for instance, is actually an amazing gem. I think these sorts of unfinished works can display a sense of artistry that maybe actually seems a little bit less restrained. Because if you are working on a deadline and you're trying to do something and finish it, there's a different mindset and mentality than if you were just doing something and then got distracted and decided to do something else. I think that it is a completely different creative process that is worth investigating and getting to know because you learn a different depth, a different world of the composer or artist, by exploring that side of their creative process.

I guess when you think about jobbing composers through time, there are probably so many works they must have put out that were unfinished in their eyes or could have been improved somewhat. You have never really finished an artistic work in that sense.

Precisely and I think that that’s the interesting question that arises often, what defines a finished work? You know, composers like Mahler who were constantly editing to the last minute. Mozart’s infamous Don Giovanni Overture, the ink was dripping off the page, all these things you think about composers, their lives. It’s fascinating to talk about and how it deals with imperfection and perfectionism in the art world, which sometimes strangles artistic and creative development.

As a conductor, do you feel like it gives you a little bit more freedom to throw your own ideas into the mix?

Yeah, I think with the Schumann more than the Schubert and probably because Schubert is a bit more known whereas, the Schumann I’m actually cutting a few things and adding a few dynamics. I do feel that I have a lot of liberty, particularly stemming from my in-depth research of the previous symphonies. For example, why does it need an introduction? Some recordings of the symphony have an introduction, some of them don’t. I actually think, architecturally it doesn’t work to have this Adagio that people play in the beginning, because it’s not actually in the score. Things like this I've carefully thought about, with hopefully the best interpretation of how I imagine Schumann would have edited

The best thing that you can do is study their work, study the symphonies, figure out what they were doing at the time and try to emulate the possible final finished work. It becomes a bit more of a playground and a creative process that’s actually quite exciting.

In that sense it’s almost a joint academic exercise as well. Do you encourage the players you work with to similarly do this research? Do you think it is a different experience?  

Yeah, and certainly in rehearsal I will challenge them to ask questions because I think that any sort of questions with an unfinished work are certainly valid. Even with a work that is finished, of course it’s valid to question, but there's something more explorative about the concept of how to interpret an unfinished work. Particularly with an orchestra like Southbank Sinfonia who are in a way, in training, it’s great to challenge them in this in this way and I look forward to hearing what they have to offer.

Would you say that this more collaborative approach is a part of your rehearsal style overall?

I went into conducting wanting to be a collaborator. This concept of old style, dictatorial conducting has never been something that I've been interested in.

I was a cellist first and foremost so being a part of the orchestra, I really understand that to get the best out of an ensemble is to feel like all the parts are working together in a way that feels collaborative and responsive rather than a sort of linear one size fits all approach.

How did you initially get into conducting?

I started cello when I think it was about 10 or 11 after a very short lived singing career in which I did a very bad solo and my mother decided to swiftly move me onto strings! I picked the cello and fell in love with music, but really the sense of collaboration, this idea of making one sound bigger than one human being was always fascinating to me.

Then I got the opportunity to conduct because one of my teachers was ill and we had to put our names in a hat and shake it around and the person who was picked was the person who was going to rehearse the orchestra. So low and behold, I got picked. I was very shy, I didn’t really like standing in front of my colleagues but again, I fell in love with the concept of the score and the idea of collaboration, visually seeing the parts come together and trying to understand how this sense of oneness came together. It still is one of the main reasons why I do what I do today.

That's the butterfly effect in full force isn't it! You know, if your name hadn’t have been picked out of that hat would you have still gone down this route...

My life is completely filled with serendipitous moments like that. It was all very lucky because none of my family members are musicians at all. They are musically inclined and love music, but they're not musicians. So, for me to stumbled upon this, it's very rare really.

You are incredibly busy right now with this upcoming season, how are you finding balance and using any downtime you might get?

I'm actually currently just about to walk on the beach and I think we're going to go out paddleboarding. Paddleboarding is my new hobby along with a bit of fly fishing whenever I get a bit of time. I like to be outside as much as possible because I don't get to do that as much so as much nature as I can possibly get.

Hope you have a lovely time and we look forward to welcoming you next week!

For more information and link to tickets for our upcoming Rush Hour Concert #8: Unfinished CLICK HERE