‘It’s OK to take dangers in live shows as a result of there it’s protected to take action’: Conductor Daniel Harding on his double life as an airline pilot | Classical music

Sitting in a wise resort lobby a stone’s throw from Berlin’s Philharmonie live performance corridor, there’s little indication of the dramatic week Daniel Harding has had. He’s on the town conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in a programme of Vaughan Williams, Strauss and Unsuk Chin’s intensely advanced 2008 work Rocaná. He appears relaxed and informal in a hooded tracksuit prime and denims, and as we quiet down to talk, I point out how a lot I loved the live performance – and the way a lot he appeared to, as effectively.

“I’m glad that was the impression,” he says with amusing, and tells me of the dramas behind the scenes: a complete day of treasured rehearsal misplaced to meals poisoning made the primary live performance – and particularly the Chin piece – considerably nerve-racking. “The piece could be very gripping nevertheless it’s very tough,” he says. “There’s something about seeing everybody on stage buckling in, and once you’re feeling underprepared – however you’ve bought that stage of orchestra – there’s a totally different power.”

Few conductors will be relied upon to maintain a cool head in a disaster higher than Harding. Not solely is he a relaxed and managed presence on the rostrum, however for the previous couple of years he has had a parallel profession piloting Airbuses for Air France, one thing that has given him a brand new perspective on conducting. “One of many issues I say about my double life,” he says, “is that it’s OK to take dangers in live shows, as a result of there it’s protected to take action.”

‘For the final 20 years I’d been the boss standing there and everybody needed to do what I stated. How on earth was that going to work in a cockpit?’ Harding piloting for Air France.

It should have helped, too, that the Berlin Philharmonic is an orchestra he is aware of effectively: he first performed it at simply 21. On the identical age, he turned the youngest conductor in Proms historical past. Whereas nonetheless a teen, he was given the prospect to conduct the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra by his mentor, Simon Rattle, and was 23 when he first appeared at Covent Backyard. “I performed most of the nice orchestras very younger,” says Harding, now 47. “Typically that went effectively and generally it didn’t.”

Subsequent jobs included positions at two crack European chamber orchestras – the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen – and a decade, from 2007, as principal visitor conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. He’s been answerable for the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra for 15 years – “in many of the necessary methods of defining it, an awesome orchestra”. A “quick however very completely happy” spell as principal conductor on the Orchestre de Paris resulted in 2019, after which he introduced a year-long sabbatical from conducting to focus on flying, a plan that, inevitably, fell foul of Covid. “I believe I used to be the one conductor on the planet who ended up doing extra live shows through the first 12 months of Covid than I used to be anticipating to,” he says with a smile.

Now, regardless of the occasional little bit of scheduling turbulence, his jobs complement one another. He provides a fast run-down of how his month is wanting. “I used to be with Air France for the primary eight days, then I am going to Cleveland, then the Concertgebouw. The fact of the steadiness is every little thing I dreamt … You should hold one thing in you that claims: ‘I’m doing this live performance proper now as a result of that’s what I wish to do, not simply because I promised to do it three years in the past and signed a contract.”

Daniel harding conducting in Italy in 2001, aged 26
Conducting in Italy in 2001, aged 26. {Photograph}: Giambalvo & Napolitano/Redferns

One musician who has impressed him on this respect is the baritone Christian Gerhaher, who initially studied to be a physician. “I used to be visibly shaken by the expertise of listening to him sing, the primary time we labored collectively 15 years in the past. I instructed him I’d by no means heard something prefer it, and he stated, in his very humble manner: ‘Oh, I’m an novice singer. I simply sing a bit bit as a result of folks ask me to.’ I assumed that was probably the most stunning factor. I might like to be an novice conductor!”

He’s clear in regards to the constructive impact his different profession has had on his conducting, even when within the interview he needed to battle in opposition to assumptions about his occupation. “The Air France choice course of is a well-known trial by hearth. It takes a few 12 months, and you’ve got all these psychological agility assessments and numerous trials. If you happen to survive, you find yourself in entrance of a panel with a pilot and a psychologist, who attempt to determine a weak point. It was clear what they had been going to place their finger on: for the final 20 years I’d been the boss standing there and everybody needed to do what I stated. How on earth was that going to work in a cockpit? They did have a degree, nevertheless it was an awesome alternative to consider what a conductor is.

“The conductor is the one individual on stage who can do completely nothing on their very own. Even when you’re working with folks you’ve identified for 20 years they usually’re good associates, you’re at all times barely on the skin. One of many issues I like about going to work for Air France is that I placed on my uniform, I am going and meet a brand new captain and cabin crew and I’m a part of the crew. And realizing one other world, how different folks work and having a totally totally different function is wholesome. I’ve realized issues about myself and conducting in a 12 months that I didn’t study in 29 years earlier than as a conductor.”

This week Harding has a two live performance stop-over on the Barbican, conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, one more top-flight orchestra with which he has a protracted relationship. One programme options Brahms and Beethoven, the opposite juxtaposes Mahler’s valedictory Ninth Symphony with a piece written by the Dutch composer Rick van Veldhuizen, mais le corps taché d’ombres, written particularly to associate it. Harding is delighted to be bringing the brand new work to London and descriptions the musical methods by which it enhances the Mahler. “It’s fairly a private piece,” he provides elliptically. Hear out for the sound of the composer’s leather-based couch squeaking in sure conditions …

There was an surprising go to to the Proms this 12 months, too, when Harding took over one among Kirill Petrenko’s programmes on the Berlin Phil’s summer time tour. “It was final minute,” he says – fortunately Air France had been accommodating. “I ended up alternating live shows, free days and flying days. The musicians had been fascinated. “The place had been you yesterday?” they’d ask, and I’d say, “Amsterdam within the morning and Tunis within the afternoon!” However they stated they’d by no means seen me happier. And it felt like I used to be working – flying – in the future after which, on what virtually felt like a free day, I used to be conducting Bruckner 4 with the Berlin Phil on the Proms!”

With every London go to, many will marvel why the British-born Harding has by no means been in line for a giant UK submit. The explanations he presents are pragmatic. “These jobs come up not often. Folks keep in them for a few years after which, a second there’s a change, just one individual goes to get that job – there might be any variety of components concerned.

“Take the LSO. I’ve had a protracted relationship with them, however in that point the job has solely come up a few instances: Simon [Rattle], which was probably the most thrilling coup, and now Tony [Pappano, who begins as chief conductor in 2024]. That could be a genius selection. As a result of when you go away a Simon Rattle-shaped gap, you want somebody so totally different and completely good in their very own manner, in order that the form and measurement of the outlet is of no consequence. For me – in all the perfect and worst methods – a Simon Rattle-shaped gap is a giant one.” As a result of he’s nonetheless seen as his protege? “Sure, within the UK no less than.”

Daniel Harding rehearsing with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, 2022
Daniel Harding within the Berwaldhallen in Stockholm, at Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra rehearsals earlier this 12 months. {Photograph}: Andrew Staples

Extra concretely he makes it clear he isn’t snug with the one-concert mannequin favoured by UK orchestras throughout their regular seasons, preferring the extra relaxed subscription-based schedules supplied by continental orchestras, by which programmes are repeated for various audiences. “I’d a lot somewhat be in Stockholm and play the programme two or thrice than in London, a lot as I like town, the place you play a programme solely as soon as. That’s brutal.”

Nor has Brexit made the prospect of Harding coming to the UK any likelier. “I’ve lived exterior the UK for 25 years, so I’m not ready to make any form of knowledgeable judgment,” he says. “However my standpoint is that, regardless of the problems or implications of any group or membership, it’s at all times higher to be concerned and inclusive. I see my associates and colleagues who’re nonetheless the opposite aspect of the ‘Iron Curtain’ and, purely selfishly talking – my God! I’m so completely happy I’m put in in Europe and never within the UK.”

Harding’s credentials as a European are backed up by the actual fact he speaks French, German and Italian, and on a couple of event as we speak a French phrase happens to him earlier than its English equal. He admits he’s ashamed that, over 15 years into his job in Stockholm, he has by no means realized Swedish. “There’s a horrible hearsay within the orchestra that I do converse Swedish and I simply faux I don’t,” he says, “however I actually don’t. Give me a newspaper and I can inform if a evaluation’s good or unhealthy, however in any other case no.”

He emphasises how necessary the SRSO is for him. “Folks say I’ve two jobs, however truly I’ve three. I’m an airline pilot, I’m a music director and I’m a conductor. The tempo you’re employed as a visitor conductor has nothing to do with what you do as a music director. I’m very spoiled that I get to conduct the perfect orchestras on the planet commonly. However being a music director is what I grew up admiring.”

With sufficient jobs to final a traditional individual a number of lifetimes, does he have time for anything? Any hobbies? “I get little obsessions, that’s at all times been my manner,” he says, laughing. “And two of them ended up turning into issues I do professionally!”

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