Orchestra pit to cockpit: the man of many talents

Yao Minji
The Shanghai Symphony Orchestra's New Year concert was conducted by Daniel Harding, who took a year's sabbatical from the Paris Orchestra last summer to become an Air France pilot.
Yao Minji

The Shanghai Symphony Orchestra poster for its New Year concert was shaped like a plane. It was no accident. 

The concert was conducted by Briton Daniel Harding, 43, who took a year’s sabbatical from the Paris Orchestra last summer to work as a contract pilot for Air France.

Harding wears two hats with great passion. He took time out from the cockpit to conduct the New Year concert here. In future, he plans to split his time between both loves of his life.

Harding is a famed musical prodigy.

Born in Oxford, he studied at the Chetham School of Music. At age 17, he assembled a group of musicians to perform an Arnold Schoenberg piece and sent a tape of the performance to conductor Simon Rattle. After listening to the tape, Rattle hired Harding as his assistant at the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra for a year.

Harding subsequently attended Cambridge but was tapped soon after as assistant to maestro Claudio Abbado at the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. He first conducted that orchestra at age 21. 

Orchestra pit to cockpit: the man of many talents
Ti Gong

Daniel Harding conducts the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra’s New Year concert.

Harding took out time while in Shanghai to talk to Shanghai Daily about conducting, piloting and working with some of the giants of classical music.

Q: Did you pilot the flight here?

A: Not this time. 2019 was a very interesting year for me. I have two sides of my professional life, and it was the year I became a pilot for Air France, something new for me.

Q: It’s a rather unusual two-sided coin. What prompted this decision?

A: I have been conducting for 25 years. I love it so much, but I have enormous curiosity about so many different things.

After 25 years working in the artistic world, I needed something a little bit more concrete, a little bit more inspiring for the scientific side of my brain. And I always wanted to fly.

I started a few years ago, and when I realized that it was something I wanted to do, I wanted to go all the way.

I know many musicians who fly small planes. Many of the skills we use are the same.

Q: What are the similarities and differences between conducting and piloting?

A: If you think about conducting, not the music but the technical skill, you have to be aware of many things at the same time and work with a team of people where everyone has a role to play. Together, we do something more important.

It’s also the same in that we have to make choices and set priorities with a lot of information, not thinking about what is happening now, but what is going to happen minutes from now.

Musicians tend to be very good at dealing with a lot of things happening at the same time and staying very calm. That is important for pilots, too.

You never always just lead, even for a conductor. Sometimes, it’s your role to lead, sometimes to listen, and you are constantly aware of your own situation in relation to the situations of others. That is also the case for pilots.

The differences are also clear.

In music, it’s our job to do crazy things. We have to take risks and look for what is most interesting. As a pilot, we have to be as predictable in our actions as possible.

I feel more comfortable as a musician taking risks now because I have another part of my life where I can be much more predictable. The balance is perfect.

Q: You organized a group of musicians to play Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire” and sent a tape of the performance to Sir Simon Rattle, who hired you as his assistant. How did that happen?

A: We were a group of friends, all very young musicians, playing this very difficult piece by Schoenberg. It was the most important thing in our life, and we wanted to give it to somebody who would give us the most possible help.

Back then, Simon Rattle was — and still is — such an important figure to musicians in Europe, especially for young musicians.

When you are young, sometimes you try things that are crazy. Of course, we owe it to Simon Rattle. It was a crazy idea, but it worked very well for me.

Q: How was working with the maestro?

A: He changed my life. I became his assistant, and he gave me so much education. But also, he offered me my first opportunity to conduct.

Conducting is not something we learn in a classroom. You have to learn it by conducting an orchestra, and you need somebody to help you get that first opportunity to get started.

Q: What was his influence on you?

A: Enormous. He’s a huge personality and a great musician. He’s also very generous, talks a lot and is very good at explaining. I was 17 years old and I was like a sponge, absorbing everything I could learn. It probably took me 20 years to learn how not to be a mini-Simon Rattle and to be myself because I was so strongly influenced by him.

Q: You also worked with Claudio Abbado. How was that experience?

A: The most wonderful thing about Abbado was his way of not trying to control the orchestra and yet make everything work.

He always tried to conduct a little bit and then to remove himself and see the orchestra function along. He would step in to help the orchestra, then remove himself again.

It’s like teaching children to learn bicycle. You don’t want them to fall off, but you need to take your hands off to see if they can do it on their own. That was his philosophy. Some conductors want to control the orchestra. Abbado, never!

Q: You conducted many top orchestras at quite a young age. How did you gain their trust?

A: With some orchestras, you gain trust very quickly; with others, it takes a long time and sometimes never happens.

I’m very lucky to have worked with the greatest orchestras in the world. You can win their trust, but you have to win it again every time.

I worked a week ago with the Berlin Philharmonic. I first worked with the orchestra 23 years ago. We have had a long relationship, but every time I come back to the orchestra, I must prove all over again that I deserve to be there.

Q: How was conducting the New Year concert in Shanghai?

A: A great pleasure. The program includes some of my beloved pieces of Western classical music and also some Chinese pieces, one of which I conducted before in a concert in Beijing.

We have a tradition in Europe of holding concerts to celebrate the Chinese New Year. I have worked with many great Chinese guest musicians in those concerts. It’s unusual for me to come to China and play a concert for our New Year.

Orchestra pit to cockpit: the man of many talents
Ti Gong

The concert poster, shaped like an airplane, reflected the British conductor’s multifaceted interests. Last year, he became an Air France pilot, dividing his time between the two passions.

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