Classical Music

‘It’s OK to take risks in concerts because there it’s safe to do so’: Conductor Daniel Harding on his double life as an airline pilot | Classical music

Sitting in a smart hotel foyer a stone’s throw from Berlin’s Philharmonie concert hall, there’s little indication of the dramatic week Daniel Harding has had. He is in town conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in a programme of Vaughan Williams, Strauss and Unsuk Chin’s intensely complex 2008 work Rocaná. He seems relaxed and casual in a hooded tracksuit top and jeans, and as we settle down to chat, I mention how much I enjoyed the concert – and how much he seemed to, as well.

“I’m glad that was the impression,” he says with a laugh, and tells me of the dramas behind the scenes: a whole day of precious rehearsal lost to food poisoning made the first concert – and especially the Chin piece – somewhat nerve-racking. “The piece is very gripping but it’s very difficult,” he says. “There is something about seeing everyone on stage buckling in, and when you’re feeling underprepared – but you’ve got that level of orchestra – there is a different energy.”

Few conductors can be relied upon to keep a cool head in a crisis better than Harding. Not only is he a calm and controlled presence on the podium, but for the past couple of years he has had a parallel career piloting Airbuses for Air France, something that has given him a new perspective on conducting. “One of the things I say about my double life,” he says, “is that it’s OK to take risks in concerts, because there it’s safe to do so.”

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

It must have helped, too, that the Berlin Philharmonic is an orchestra he knows well: he first conducted it at just 21. At the same age, he became the youngest conductor in Proms history. While still a teenager, he was given the chance to conduct the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra by his mentor, Simon Rattle, and was 23 when he first appeared at Covent Garden. “I conducted many of the great orchestras very young,” says Harding, now 47. “Sometimes that went well and sometimes 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 guest conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. He’s been in charge of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra for 15 years – “in most of the important ways of defining it, a great orchestra”. A “short but very happy” spell as principal conductor at the Orchestre de Paris ended in 2019, after which he announced a year-long sabbatical from conducting to concentrate on flying, a plan that, inevitably, fell foul of Covid. “I think I was the only conductor in the world who ended up doing more concerts during the first year of Covid than I was expecting to,” he says with a smile.

Now, despite the occasional bit of scheduling turbulence, his jobs complement each other. He gives a quick run-down of how his month is looking. “I was with Air France for the first eight days, then I go to Cleveland, then the Concertgebouw. The reality of the balance is everything I dreamt … You need to keep something in you that says: ‘I’m doing this concert right now because that’s what I want to do, not just because I promised to do it three years ago 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 inspired him in this respect is the baritone Christian Gerhaher, who originally studied to be a doctor. “I was visibly shaken by the experience of hearing him sing, the first time we worked together 15 years ago. I told him I’d never heard anything like it, and he said, in his very humble way: ‘Oh, I’m an amateur singer. I just sing a little bit because people ask me to.’ I thought that was the most beautiful thing. I would love to be an amateur conductor!”

He is clear about the positive effect his other career has had on his conducting, even if in the interview he had to fight against assumptions about his profession. “The Air France selection process is a famous trial by fire. It takes about a year, and you have all these mental agility tests and various trials. If you survive, you end up in front of a panel with a pilot and a psychologist, who try to identify a weakness. It was clear what they were going to put their finger on: for the last 20 years I’d been the boss standing there and everyone had to do what I said. How on earth was that going to work in a cockpit? They did have a point, but it was a great opportunity to think about what a conductor is.

“The conductor is the only person on stage who can do absolutely nothing on their own. Even if you’re working with people you’ve known for 20 years and they’re good friends, you’re always slightly on the outside. One of the things I love about going to work for Air France is that I put on my uniform, I go and meet a new captain and cabin crew and I’m part of the team. And knowing another world, how other people work and having a completely different role is healthy. I’ve learned things about myself and conducting in a year that I didn’t learn in 29 years before as a conductor.”

This week Harding has a two concert stop-over at the Barbican, conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, yet another top-flight orchestra with which he has a long relationship. One programme features Brahms and Beethoven, the other juxtaposes Mahler’s valedictory Ninth Symphony with a work written by the Dutch composer Rick van Veldhuizen, mais le corps taché d’ombres, written especially to partner it. Harding is delighted to be bringing the new work to London and outlines the musical ways in which it complements the Mahler. “It’s quite a personal piece,” he adds elliptically. Listen out for the sound of the composer’s leather sofa squeaking in certain situations …

There was an unexpected visit to the Proms this year, too, when Harding took over one of Kirill Petrenko’s programmes on the Berlin Phil’s summer tour. “It was very last minute,” he says – luckily Air France were accommodating. “I ended up alternating concerts, free days and flying days. The musicians were fascinated. “Where were you yesterday?” they’d ask, and I’d say, “Amsterdam in the morning and Tunis in the afternoon!” But they said they’d never seen me happier. And it felt like I was working – flying – one day and then, on what almost felt like a free day, I was conducting Bruckner Four with the Berlin Phil at the Proms!”

With each London visit, many will wonder why the British-born Harding has never been in line for a big UK post. The reasons he offers are pragmatic. “These jobs come up rarely. People stay in them for many years and then, a moment there’s a change, only one person is going to get that job – there could be any number of factors involved.

“Take the LSO. I’ve had a long relationship with them, but in that time the job has only come up a couple of times: Simon [Rattle], which was the most thrilling coup, and now Tony [Pappano, who begins as chief conductor in 2024]. That is a genius choice. Because if you leave a Simon Rattle-shaped hole, you need someone so different and utterly brilliant in their own way, so that the shape and size of the hole is of no consequence. For me – in all the best and worst ways – a Simon Rattle-shaped hole is a big one.” Because he’s still seen as his protege? “Yes, in the UK at least.”

Daniel Harding rehearsing with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, 2022
Daniel Harding in the Berwaldhallen in Stockholm, at Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra rehearsals earlier this year. Photograph: Andrew Staples

More concretely he makes it clear he is not comfortable with the one-concert model favoured by UK orchestras during their normal seasons, preferring the more relaxed subscription-based schedules offered by continental orchestras, in which programmes are repeated for different audiences. “I’d much rather be in Stockholm and play the programme two or three times than in London, much as I love the city, where you play a programme only once. That’s brutal.”

Nor has Brexit made the prospect of Harding coming to the UK any likelier. “I’ve lived outside the UK for 25 years, so I’m not in a position to make any kind of informed judgment,” he says. “But my point of view is that, whatever the complications or implications of any group or club, it’s always better to be involved and inclusive. I see my friends and colleagues who are still the other side of the ‘Iron Curtain’ and, purely selfishly speaking – my God! I’m so happy I’m installed in Europe and not in the UK.”

Harding’s credentials as a European are backed up by the fact he speaks French, German and Italian, and on more than one occasion as we talk a French word occurs to him before its English equivalent. He admits he’s ashamed that, over 15 years into his job in Stockholm, he has never learned Swedish. “There’s a terrible rumour in the orchestra that I do speak Swedish and I just pretend I don’t,” he says, “but I really don’t. Give me a newspaper and I can tell if a review’s good or bad, but otherwise no.”

He emphasises how important the SRSO is for him. “People say I have two jobs, but actually I have three. I’m an airline pilot, I’m a music director and I’m a conductor. The pace you work as a guest conductor has nothing to do with what you do as a music director. I’m very spoiled that I get to conduct the best orchestras in the world regularly. But being a music director is what I grew up admiring.”

With enough jobs to last a normal person several lifetimes, does he have time for anything else? Any hobbies? “I get little obsessions, that’s always been my way,” he says, laughing. “And two of them ended up becoming things I do professionally!”

Daniel Harding conducts the Royal Concertgebouw at the Barbican, London, on 4 and 5 November

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