Saturday, August 7, 2021, Royal Albert Hall, London

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

No disrespect to Laura Jurd (Chant, London premiere) or Jessie Montgomery (Banner, likewise), nor Nicola Benedetti (Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto), but this Prom was about Jonathon Heyward, NYOGB and Beethoven. Charleston, South Carolina-born, Boston Conservatory and Royal Academy of Music-trained, winner of the 2015 Besançon International Competition for Young Conductors, Mark Elder’s former assistant at the Hallé, Los Angeles Philharmonic Dudamel Conducting Fellow, and chief conductor of the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie (succeeding such as Hermann Scherchen, Michail Jurowski and Andris Nelsons), Heyward’s a man of twenty-nine coolly heading for the stratosphere. Last autumn I caught up with a Dvořák New World webcast he did with the LSO at St Luke’s. Tough pros and hardened principals gave him a responsive ride. No routine run-through but a beautifully shaped reading, the awkward corners musically negotiated (Scherzo/Trio links especially), the expansive paragraphs allowed time to breathe and climax.

Economic in body language, he displays a wiry rhythmic tension in what he does, together with the clearest of beats. Gratuitous indulgence, excessive gesture, isn’t his scene. Crisp punctuation, grammatically underlined cadences, sharp dynamics, phrased hairpins, clean cut-offs are. Clarity, coaxing his musicians, getting everyone to listen yet have their say and freedom, openness and accessibility, knowing what it is to be given opportunity, determine his manner and aesthetic. “The secret to being a good conductor is to focus on collaboration. To unite, to get a oneness of sound, to listen, really listen, to put yourself in the players’ shoes, to empathise and sympathise.”

Beethoven into his early thirties, a young Vulcan of a genius venturing where no one had before. An ‘Eroica’ to seize you by the throat. Bold vision, taut architecture, sweeping paragraphs, enough detail to speak and stimulate but not overcrowd or detract. First movement, with exposition repeat, lifting off organically, finding its summation in a crescendo-ing, spiralling, dancingly euphoric coda. At around dotted minim 60 (plus/minus) brisk, Savall style, but no more so in fact than Beethoven’s expectation (Leipzig Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, 1817). A ‘funeral march’ of pathos, ache, lofty C-major tutti, and theatre (the A-flat gravitas following bar 158, sextuplets articulated with gritty glory), the final disintegration of melody suspended in catacomb shadow. A cantering la chasse Scherzo, pulsing around the score’s dotted minim 116 mark, boiling above fires well lit, final bars hurled across the hall like thunderbolts. An uplifting passacaglia to close, attention grabbing as much for the commendable refusal to hurry the Magyarism of the G-minor variation as the grandeur – a valedictory, longing grandeur cored from deep within – of the Poco Andante (extended prefatory pause sensed with near Furtwängler-like tension).

Drawn from all over the United Kingdom, the teenagers of the NYOGB, led with bravado by Kynan Walker (Sutton Coldfield), violas stage-right, lived the occasion with urgency and brilliance – but then don’t they always? A raspingly full-voiced horn section. An easy-going loose-limbed timpanist who might have come straight from a rock session, working wonders with resonant tonics and dominants, happy to give us cannon-shot fortissimos followed by poetic pianissimos and tenderly stroked fades-away. For forty-eight minutes Beethoven was his reason for living. A watchful, serene girl occupying the flute chair. Quality tone, artistic presence, sailing the tide of the Finale’s semiquaver solo fearlessly. Deservedly, the first curtain-call was hers.

One grew up on other kinds of ‘Eroica’ – Knappertsbusch, Klemperer, Karajan, Barbirolli, the weight of von Matačić, the ‘wedding cake’ monumentalism of Svetlanov. Different impressiveness. “No country for old men. The young in one another’s arms” is Heyward’s modern take. Every now and again performances stop us in our tracks. I’ve written elsewhere about Kristjan Järvi’s seismic Baltic Youth Philharmonic ‘explosion’ in Paris in 2015. Then there was that phenomenal night with the Simón Bolívar National Youth Orchestra under Dudamel at the 2007 Proms. Jonathon Heyward opens a new page. A career-defining evening.