The conductor as flight captain

Daniel Harding in conversation

Daniel Harding
(Photo: Julian Hargreaves)

Daniel Harding, Manchester United fan, private pilot and chief conductor of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra for eleven years, is making his second guest appearance with the Berliner Philharmoniker this season. To mark this occasion, we met him for a chat – immediately after his favourite football club was defeated in the city derby against Manchester City.

128: Daniel, it’s sad but true that after losing this match, Manchester United are now eleven points behind their rivals.
Daniel Harding: Oh well, there’s not much we can do about that.

Let’s stay with football for a moment: It’s quite possible that England and Germany will meet in the quarter-finals of the World Cup in Russia.
What will you do if you have to conduct a concert on the same day? My real interest is in club football, the teams that play at the highest level every week. And it’s exactly those teams that can be compared to orchestras, more so than national ones. Put simply, are there any similarities between a coach and a conductor? Yes, there are. Unlike a theatre director who leaves before the performance, the coach and conductor are still on hand. But in the end they can’t do anything either.

I beg your pardon?
Well, the coach doesn’t score goals, and the conductor doesn’t produce the sound.

But he creates the sound.
That’s the big question. Take the Berliner Philharmoniker: they know what they have to play – and of course, who they have to listen to. We are talking about an orchestra that works perfectly together. They don’t really need a trainer to explain how to do it.

What does the conductor do?
That’s a question that can be answered either very easily – or not at all. Let’s put it this way, when people ask if the musicians of such a top orchestra can play without a conductor, the answer is obvious: yes, of course they can. But that’s not the question to ask. That’s not what a conductor is for.

What is it then?
It’s about taking a first step up the mountain which ends in a great performance. And for that, it’s not enough to have the possibility to do something specific. It’s about more, about other things. Personally, I don’t think musicians consider the conductor as someone who makes the machine work – except for certain moments. The machine should also run without a conductor. The challenge for a conductor is to make the subtle difference of giving an interpretation a direction, a form that only this one person is capable of giving. A great conductor is someone who can maintain the integrity, architecture, and shape of a piece of music and have a vision of what is allowed, what space is given for the individuality of each musician: the living breath within the whole. Too strict a conductor reduces the possibilities of the group; those who are too lax sacrifice the coherence of the form.

Could you give us a positive example?
Claudio Abbado. We both know that there was this same discussion about his rehearsal style. He said very little. I watched him at work for years, and I always tried to find out what his secret was. What is he doing there? I think he wanted to see what would happen if he let his hands rest: can I give up control? In the concert itself, everything flowed naturally.

But there is no guarantee of that, is there?
No. I know from experience that there are these moments when conductor and orchestra merge into a single unit. These are the magical moments. But there are other moments, too: when things work, but nothing more. The difference between a functioning and an extraordinary interpretation can be huge. And everyone feels that.

It’s almost as if the old breed of conductors had an advantage in this respect.
I can’t judge that. But I know that this so-called golden period with conductors such as Karajan and Bernstein is almost mythically charged. But when someone at the age of 60 tells how incredible what he experienced at the age of 20 was, it comes across like romanticised hindsight. For someone like me, who experiences Haitink or Jansons in concert and wants to compare them to Bernstein and Karajan, the comparison is rather arbitrary. I am happy that there were conductors who had such a titanic presence. A conductor with a great personality functions differently today. And looks different.

Has the meaning of the word “great” changed as well?
When I use the word “great”, I mean someone who operates at the highest level. But what is a great conductor? Hard to say. We live in a very visual world. I myself have been conducting for a quarter of a century, and in hundreds of rehearsals and concerts I have had the opportunity to stand in front of the greatest orchestras. I would say: successful conducting consists of 80 per cent perceptiveness and 20 per cent gestures. I see a lot of young conductors, I see perfect gestures – but it has absolutely no effect on what the orchestra does.

Why not?
Because the gesture is just a tool. If you don’t have this perceptiveness, then physical gestures serve no purpose. A good sound engineer sometimes hears more than a great conductor! I’ve personally met sound engineers with better hearing than Pierre Boulez. And yet they are not great conductors.

And you?
(laughs) I was only at Cambridge University for one year. Then, as a very young musician, I came straight to the Berliner Philharmoniker, as Abbado’s assistant. My only qualification is to have a pilot’s license. However, there are many interesting parallels between a pilot and a conductor.

And what are they?
As a pilot, you sit there and press buttons. The computer does almost everything. And that’s the way it is with a conductor and an orchestra. The conductor controls with his hands, but only the orchestra plays. The opportunity to intervene is only situational for both conductors and pilots. My job is to steer the machine exactly where I want it to go. The Berliner Philharmoniker are an orchestra that loves to have moments when the autopilot is on. I just provide the impulse.

Are the Berliner Philharmoniker more a Boeing or an Airbus orchestra?
(laughs) I’m not going to answer that question. But I can assure you that there are other orchestras that want to be tickled more. In any case, a gifted conductor who is loved by one orchestra can suddenly find it difficult with another, even though he’s the same conductor

Why?
Because the needs and wishes are different. But apart from the Berliner Philharmoniker, I know of no other orchestra that deals properly with a complicated ritardando if I remain still and simply listen to them.

Are there any erotic contexts in the relationship between conductor and orchestra?
I think that means something different for everyone. Musicians and conductors benefit from the opportunities and ideas of their counterparts. But both need compromise at the same time, a combination of these possibilities and ideas with the possibilities and ideas of this counterpart. That’s the secret. Interaction with others is always a compromise. It’s important that both find beauty in it.

Beauty will save the world, wrote Dostoevsky. May one imagine yourself as a happy person in this sense
Yes absolutely!

The interview was conducted by Emil Sundström.