Will the Los Angeles Philharmonic be Jonathon Heyward's good luck charm?
Heyward, a 25-year-old American who is part of the L.A. Phil’s prestigious Dudamel Fellowship Program for conductors, could follow the likes of Lionel Bringuier and Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla, who earned major orchestra appointments after stints with the ensemble.
When illness forced Miguel Harth-Bedoya to withdraw this weekend from the L.A. Phil’s "Bernstein 100" anniversary concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Heyward stepped in. This season as part of the Toyota Symphonies for Youth series, he led the orchestra in Glinka's "Ruslan and Ludmila" Overture and Stravinsky's "Firebird" Suite, and both of those works substituted for Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 3, originally on Harth-Bedoya's program.
More important, on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, Heyward conducted the premiere of an L.A. Phil commission, Tania León's intimate "Ser (Being)," as well as Leonard Bernstein's tricky 1954 Serenade, a five-movement violin concerto inspired by Plato's "Symposium," featuring soloist Hilary Hahn.
With reportedly only two days to prepare for his subscription concert debut weekend, Heyward nevertheless strode to the podium with confidence, launching into Glinka's warhorse with whirlwind vitality and an exuberant boyish charm that was positively Bernsteinian. He then settled down for the Serenade, allowing Hahn, who performed the piece from memory, to conjure some of her warmest, most autumnal and, when appropriate, spikiest playing.
Throughout, Heyward and the L.A. Phil made the most of Bernstein's changing meters and jagged rhythms, capturing the bristling energy of the jazzy finale. The conductor’s rhythmic command provided enough contrast to keep Bernstein's intensely lyrical meditation on love from cloying. He knew when to lead and when to follow, effortlessly balancing his roles as a natural showman and sensitive collaborator in service to the music.
Hahn's encore was a delightful account of the gigue from Bach's Partita No. 3.
After intermission came "Ser." León's finely crafted and bird-sound-haunted piece engaged the coloristic resources of the L.A. Phil to lovely effect. Especially memorable were the chirping clarinet and fluttering flute figures, set off by zesty writing for the brasses. Heyward led the orchestra with delicacy and mature skill, lending León's ethereal 10-minute piece a shapely character.
León, 74, came to New York in 1967 as a pianist from Cuba. She studied with Bernstein at Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony Orchestra's summer home, subsequently adding the jobs of composer and conductor to her resume. She became a founding member of the Dance Theatre of Harlem and its first music director. Though based in New York, she is no stranger to California: She conducted the premiere of her instrumental ensemble piece "Pa'lante" at the 2016 Ojai Music Festival.
At a charming pre-concert talk, León spoke of music's power to cultivate empathy by creating a direct line to universally shared emotions — another Bernstein connection. "A composer is like a shoemaker," she said, demystifying the aloof artist and suggesting the composer's primary role as a craftsperson who engages others.
The concert concluded with an electrifying account of “The Firebird," in its 1919 orchestration. Here, Heyward forged a seamless connection among the music, the orchestra and the audience. There were no gimmicks. Heyward used the score, conducting without a baton. Flexible phrasing allowed breathing room for the "Dance of the Firebird" and dreamy Berceuse, and the "Infernal Dance" was suitably primal, sometimes brutal, in its earthiness.
Bernstein was 25 in 1943 when he made his debut with the New York Philharmonic, substituting for an ailing Bruno Walter. Although it's too early to tell where Heyward's career might go — he's currently assistant conductor of the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester, England — his L.A. Phil concert augurs great things to come.
For now, he's conducting another performance of "The Firebird," this time set to dance and directed and choreographed by Kitty McNamee, on Dec. 9 at Disney Hall.