Conductor Daniel Harding discusses his dual career as an airline pilot, saying that it is OK to take risks at concerts since they are a safe environment

Posted by Mike Schumacher

‘Knowing another world, how other people work and having a completely different role is healthy.’
Daniel Harding rehearses at Musikverein music hall in Vienna in May 2021.
 Photograph: Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images


He has performed with some of the top orchestras in the world, but claims that his new side job as an airline pilot has taught him skills he never learned during his 30 years as a musician


There is no sign of the extraordinary week Daniel Harding has had as he sits in a classy hotel lobby close to Berlin’s Philharmonie. He is in town leading the Berlin Philharmonic in a program that includes works by Vaughan Williams, Richard Strauss, and Unsuk Chin’s very difficult Rocaná from 2008. I say how much I loved the performance and how much he appeared to as well as we begin to speak. He is dressed comfortably and casually in a hooded tracksuit top and pants.


He laughs and adds, “I’m glad that was the impression.” He then goes on to tell me about the dramas that occurred behind the scenes, including the day of practice that was missed due to food sickness, which made the first performance, particularly the Chin piece, a little unnerving. The work, he claims, “is very difficult but very gripping.” When you’re feeling unprepared but have that level of orchestra, there is a different vibe because you can see everyone on stage getting into it.


Harding is one of the conductors who can be counted on to remain composed under pressure the best. In addition to being a calm and collected presence at the podium, he has been an Airbus pilot for Air France for the last several years, which has given him a fresh perspective on conducting. One of the things he says about his double life is that “concerts are a safe place to take risks,” according to him.


Daniel Harding in the cockpit for Air France

‘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.


Additionally, the fact that he initially conducted the Berlin Philharmonic when he was just 21 may have been helpful. He made history by being the Proms’ youngest conductor at the same age. He was only a kid when his mentor Simon Rattle offered him the opportunity to lead the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and he was 23 when he made his debut at Covent Garden. Harding, now 47, claims, “I conducted several of the major orchestras fairly young. That sometimes worked out nicely and occasionally didn’t.


The Mahler Chamber Orchestra and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen were two of his subsequent employers. He also spent ten years, starting in 2007, as the chief guest conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. He has been in command of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, which is “in most significant ways, a great orchestra,” for 15 years. After a “short but very happy” tenure as the Orchestre de Paris’ chief conductor came to an end in 2019, he declared a year-long break from conducting to focus on flying, a move that, unavoidably, ran afoul of Covid. He explains with a chuckle, “I believe I was the only conductor in the world who actually performed more concerts during the first year of Covid.”


His occupations now compliment one another, notwithstanding the odd amount of schedule disruption. He briefly summarizes how his month has gone thus far. “I spent the first eight days with Air France before traveling to Cleveland and the Concertgebouw. You need to hold onto a part of yourself 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.” The reality of the balance is everything I dreamed it would be.


Daniel harding conducting in Italy in 2001, aged 26

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


The baritone Christian Gerhaher, who initially pursued studies to become a doctor, is one musician who has served as an inspiration to him in this regard. “The first time we worked together 15 years ago, hearing him sing left me visibly shocked. When I told him I had never heard anything like that, he responded in his typically modest manner, “Oh, I’m just a beginner singer.” People want me to sing a little bit, so I do. That, in my opinion, is the most lovely thing. Being a conductor in my spare time sounds amazing!


Even though he had to overcome stereotypes about his work throughout the interview, he is certain about the good impact his other employment has had on his conducting. “The selection procedure for Air France is a well-known trial by fire. You go through many trials and all these mental agility tests over the course of roughly a year. If you make it through, you are brought before a panel that includes a pilot and a psychologist who look for areas of weakness. It was obvious what they were going to focus on: for the previous 20 years, I had been the boss in that position, and everyone had to follow my instructions. What on earth was going to happen in a cockpit if that? Although they did have a point, it was an excellent chance to consider what a conductor really does.


“The only performer on stage who is completely helpless on their own is the conductor. You’re constantly on the periphery, even if you work alongside individuals you’ve known for 20 years and who are close friends. I like meeting new captains and cabin crew members and being a part of the team when I put on my uniform to go to work for Air France. Additionally, it’s beneficial to have a totally new position, understand another environment, and how other people function. In the last year, I’ve learnt things about myself and conducting that, in my previous 29 years as a conductor, I hadn’t learned.


The only performer on stage who is completely helpless on their own is the conductor.
This week, Harding will lead the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra for two concerts at the Barbican, another premier orchestra with whom he has a longstanding association. The second program pairs Mahler’s last symphony with a piece by Dutch composer Rick van Veldhuizen, but le corps taché d’ombres, which was created particularly for it. One session comprises Brahms and Beethoven. Harding discusses the musical ways in which the new piece compliments the Mahler and expresses his joy in bringing it to London. He adds elliptically, “It’s quite a personal thing. In certain circumstances, you could hear the leather couch belonging to the composer creak.


This year’s Proms also had an unexpected visit from Harding, who took over one of Kirill Petrenko’s programs during the summer tour of the Berlin Phil. He claims, “It was extremely last-minute,” and fortunately Air France was flexible. I ultimately alternated between leisure days, flying days, and concerts. The performers were mesmerized. They would inquire as to my whereabouts and I would reply, “Amsterdam in the morning and Tunis in the afternoon!” Yet they claimed to have never seen me happier. Then, on what nearly seemed like a free day, I was conducting Bruckner Four with the Berlin Phil at the Proms! It felt like I was working and flying one day.


Many people will ponder why Harding, a British citizen, has never been considered for a significant UK position on each visit to London. He provides pragmatist justifications. “These positions don’t appear often. People work in them for many years until suddenly, for a variety of reasons, just one person is going to be selected for the position.


The LSO, please. Although I’ve known them for a long time, the opportunity to take the position has only arisen a few times: once with Simon [Rattle], which was an exciting coup, and most recently with Tony [Pappano, who will take over as head conductor in 2024]. That was a wise decision. Because if you leave a hole that resembles Simon Rattle, you need someone who is completely unique and amazing in their own right so that the size and form of the hole are irrelevant. A Simon Rattle-shaped void is a significant one for me, in both good and bad ways. because he is still considered to be his protege? “Yes, at least in the UK.”


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 specifically, he states that he prefers the more laid-back subscription-based timetables given by continental orchestras, where programs are repeated for various audiences, over the one-concert format used by UK orchestras during their regular seasons. “Despite how much I adore London, I’d much prefer be in Stockholm where the program is played twice or three times than in London where it is just played once. That’s awful.


Brexit has not increased the likelihood that Harding will visit the UK. I’ve spent the last 25 years living outside of the UK, therefore I’m not in a position to make any type of educated judgment, he claims. “However, in my opinion, it’s always preferable to be engaged and inclusive, regardless of the difficulties or repercussions of any organization or club. I look at my friends and coworkers who are still on the other side of the “Iron Curtain,” and my God! I’m overjoyed to be based in Europe rather than the UK.


The fact that Harding speaks French, German, and Italian supports his claim to be a European, and on many occasions throughout our conversation, a French term comes to mind before its English counterpart. He acknowledges that despite working in Stockholm for more than 15 years, he has never studied Swedish. He claims that there is a false rumor among the orchestra that he speaks Swedish but in reality, he doesn’t. Whether you give me a newspaper, I can identify if a review is positive or negative, but not otherwise.


He makes clear how crucial the SRSO is to him. “People mistakenly think I work two jobs, but I really work three. I’m a conductor, a music director, and an aircraft pilot. What you do as a music director has nothing to do with the speed at which you conduct as a guest conductor. I feel very fortunate to routinely command some of the world’s top orchestras. But I grew up idolizing becoming a music director.


Does he have time for anything else when he has enough work to last a typical person for many lifetimes? Any pastimes? He laughs and explains, “I develop tiny obsessions, that’s always been my way. “And two of them turned into things I do for a living!”


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


Thanks to Hugo Shirley at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story. 

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