‘It’s adequate to take dangers in concert events as a result of there it’s protected to accomplish that’: Conductor Daniel Harding on his double life as an airline pilot

Sitting in a sensible lodge lobby a stone’s throw from Berlin’s Philharmonie live performance hall, there’s little indication of the dramatic week Daniel Harding has had. he is on the town conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in a programme of Vaughan Williams, Strauss and Unsuk Chin’s intensely advanced 2008 work Rocaná. He looks cozy and informal in a hooded tracksuit top and jeans, and as we relax to chat, I point out how much I enjoyed the live performance â€" and the way an awful lot he gave the impression to, as smartly.

“I’m happy that was the impact,” he says with a laugh, and tells me of the dramas in the back of the scenes: a whole day of valuable rehearsal misplaced to food poisoning made the primary live performance â€" and particularly the Chin piece â€" slightly nerve-racking. “The piece is very gripping however it’s very complex,” he says. “there's whatever about seeing everyone on stage buckling in, and when you’re feeling underprepared â€" but you’ve acquired that level of orchestra â€" there's a special energy.”

Few conductors may also be relied upon to hold a cool head in a crisis improved than Harding. no longer handiest is he a calm and managed presence on the rostrum, however for the previous couple of years he has had a parallel profession piloting Airbuses for Air France, some thing that has given him a new perspective on conducting. “one of the issues I say about my double existence,” he says, “is that it’s adequate to take dangers in concert events, as a result of there it’s secure to achieve this.”

‘For the final two decades I’d been the boss standing there and everyone needed to do what I observed. How in the world become that going to work in a cockpit?’ Harding piloting for Air France.

It ought to have helped, too, that the Berlin Philharmonic is an orchestra he knows neatly: he first conducted it at just 21. on the equal age, he became the youngest conductor in Proms historical past. whereas nevertheless a youngster, he became given the chance to habits the city of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra by means of his mentor, Simon Rattle, and turned into 23 when he first looked at Covent garden. “I performed most of the splendid orchestras very young,” says Harding, now 47. “every so often that went well and infrequently it didn’t.”

Subsequent jobs covered positions at two crack European chamber orchestras â€" the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen â€" and a decade, from 2007, as most important visitor conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. He’s been in cost of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra for 15 years â€" “in most of the vital methods of defining it, a pretty good orchestra”. A “brief however very satisfied” spell as fundamental conductor at the Orchestre de Paris resulted in 2019, after which he introduced a yr-lengthy sabbatical from conducting to concentrate on flying, a plan that, inevitably, fell foul of Covid. “I feel i was the best conductor on earth who ended up doing greater live shows all the way through the primary year of Covid than i used to be expecting to,” he says with a smile.

Now, despite the occasional little bit of scheduling turbulence, his jobs complement each and every different. He gives a brief run-down of how his month is looking. “i was with Air France for the first eight days, then i am going to Cleveland, then the Concertgebouw. The truth of the stability is every thing I dreamt … You should preserve whatever thing in you that says: ‘I’m doing this live performance at the moment because that’s what I need to do, not just as a result of I promised to do it three years in the past and signed a contract.”

Conducting in Italy in 2001, aged 26. photograph: Giambalvo & Napolitano/Redferns

One musician who has impressed him during this recognize is the baritone Christian Gerhaher, who at the start studied to be a doctor. “i used to be visibly shaken through the journey of hearing him sing, the first time we worked together 15 years in the past. I advised him I’d never heard anything adore it, and he observed, in his very humble method: ‘Oh, I’m an novice singer. I simply sing a little bit because individuals ask me to.’ i believed that turned into the most pleasing element. i would love to be an newbie conductor!”

he is clear about the fantastic impact his other profession has had on his conducting, however within the interview he needed to combat towards assumptions about his career. “The Air France option technique is a famous trial through fire. It takes a few 12 months, and you've got all these mental agility tests and various trials. if you live on, you come to be in front of a panel with a pilot and a psychologist, who are attempting to establish a weakness. It become clear what they were going to place their finger on: for the final twenty years I’d been the boss standing there and everyone had to do what I observed. How on the planet became that going to work in a cockpit? They did have a point, however it become a good chance to think about what a conductor is.

“The conductor is the most effective grownup on stage who can do completely nothing on their personal. although you’re working with people you’ve ordinary for 20 years and that they’re good pals, you’re at all times a bit of on the backyard. one of the most 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 that i’m a part of the team. And realizing another world, how different individuals work and having a very distinctive function is in shape. I’ve learned things about myself and conducting in a 12 months that I didn’t learn in 29 years before as a conductor.”

The conductor is the handiest adult on stage who can do absolutely nothing on their own.

This week Harding has a two concert cease-over at the Barbican, conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, yet one other proper-flight orchestra with which he has a protracted relationship. One programme points Brahms and Beethoven, the different juxtaposes Mahler’s valedictory Ninth Symphony with a piece written by the Dutch composer Rick van Veldhuizen, mais le corps taché d’ombres, written primarily to companion it. Harding is delighted to be bringing the brand new work to London and descriptions the musical approaches wherein it complements the Mahler. “It’s quite a personal piece,” he adds elliptically. listen out for the sound of the composer’s leather-based couch squeaking in definite instances …

There turned into an sudden talk over with to the Proms this yr, too, when Harding took over certainly one of Kirill Petrenko’s programmes on the Berlin Phil’s summer season tour. “It became very last minute,” he says â€" thankfully Air France have been accommodating. “i finished up alternating concerts, free days and flying days. The musicians have been interested. “the place were you the day prior to this?” they’d ask, and that i’d say, “Amsterdam within the morning and Tunis within the afternoon!” but they referred to they’d by no means viewed me happier. And it felt like i used to be working â€" flying â€" one day after which, on what pretty much felt like a free day, i was conducting Bruckner four with the Berlin Phil on the Proms!”

With each and every London visit, many will ask yourself why the British-born Harding has in no way been in line for a huge UK put up. The explanations he presents are pragmatic. “These jobs come up rarely. individuals live in them for a long time and then, a moment there’s a transformation, only 1 adult goes to get that job â€" there may well be any number of factors concerned.

“Take the LSO. I’ve had a protracted relationship with them, but in that time the job has most effective come up a few instances: Simon [Rattle], which was probably the most interesting coup, and now Tony [Pappano, who begins as chief conductor in 2024]. this is a genius alternative. because if you leave a Simon Rattle-shaped gap, you need somebody so distinctive and fully stunning in their personal approach, in order that the form and size of the gap is of no final result. For me â€" in all the most fulfilling and worst approaches â€" a Simon Rattle-fashioned gap is a large one.” as a result of he’s still seen as his protege? “yes, in the UK as a minimum.”

Daniel Harding in the Berwaldhallen in Stockholm, at Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra rehearsals previous this year. image: Andrew Staples

greater concretely he makes it clear he's not relaxed with the one-concert mannequin favoured by means of UK orchestras right through their general seasons, preferring the extra at ease subscription-based schedules provided by means of continental orchestras, by which programmes are repeated for different audiences. “I’d lots somewhat be in Stockholm and play the programme two or thrice than in London, an awful lot as i really like the city, where you play a programme only as soon as. That’s brutal.”

Nor has Brexit made the prospect of Harding coming to the united kingdom any likelier. “I’ve lived backyard the uk for 25 years, so I’m now not ready to make any kind of informed judgment,” he says. “but my element of view is that, something the problems or implications of any group or membership, it’s always greater to be concerned and inclusive. I see my chums and colleagues who are nonetheless the different side of the ‘Iron Curtain’ and, in basic terms selfishly talking â€" my God! I’m so chuffed I’m installed in Europe and not in the UK.”

Harding’s credentials as a eu are backed up with the aid of the truth he speaks French, German and Italian, and on more than one event as we talk a French be aware happens to him earlier than its English equal. He admits he’s ashamed that, over 15 years into his job in Stockholm, he has in no way discovered Swedish. “There’s a horrific rumour in the orchestra that I do speak Swedish and i simply fake I don’t,” he says, “however I in fact don’t. provide me a newspaper and i can inform if a overview’s decent or bad, however in any other case no.”

He emphasises how essential the SRSO is for him. “people say I have two jobs, however definitely I even have three. I’m an airline pilot, I’m a tune director and that i’m a conductor. The tempo you're employed as a guest conductor has nothing to do with what you do as a track director. I’m very spoiled that I get to conduct the foremost orchestras on the planet continuously. but being a track director is what I grew up admiring.”

With enough jobs to closing a traditional person several lifetimes, does he have time for anything else? Any pursuits? “I get little obsessions, that’s all the time been my manner,” he says, laughing. “And two of them ended up fitting issues I do professionally!”

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

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