A few weeks ago, I traveled to Stockholm to speak with English conductor Daniel Harding and hear a rehearsal and concert with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, which Harding has led since 2007. (Disclosure: The orchestra covered my flights and hotel for the trip.) Harding and I had lunch together at a restaurant so fancy that it didn’t have a menu—the chef came out and told us what ingredients were fresh that day—but Harding barely seemed to register the food, focusing intently on answering my questions. We talked for almost two hours about the long-term relationship between conductor and orchestra, how music and aviation overlap, and the constant presence of music in Harding’s head. After the concert that evening—with works of Schumann, Brahms, and Brett Dean—I noticed that Harding was still humming a snippet from the piece he had just conducted while he took his bow.

VAN: You began your post as chief conductor of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra (SRSO) in 2007. How has your relationship with the orchestra changed since then? 

Daniel Harding: I’m so bad at taking perspective on things in which I’m involved myself. I accepted the job around 2005, when I was 30. Until then, pretty much all of my work where I’d been like chief conductor anywhere was with these amazing chamber orchestras like the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen. It was quite protected, because they’re very autonomous. It’s a different role physically as a conductor: With these chamber orchestras, it’s much easier for them just to take care of everything, and then you spend a lot of your time discussing ideas. 

I had been in Stockholm working with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, and the manager of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra asked me to come and watch a rehearsal. I remember being amazed. The lights were quite low. Myung-whun Chung was rehearsing the Verdi Requiem. He was working with the strings on a sound, on a small pattern. It was this incredibly focused, intimate rehearsal, and he was getting more and more from the orchestra. It stuck in my mind as an ideal working environment. 

I found the SRSO to be prepared, relaxed, and open. From the very beginning, I never felt with them that you could be in that situation where you phrase one thing the wrong way, or you just make one small error, and you’re burnt. They’re just so human.

I’m telling you all this to try to remember what it was like. I never thought I’d still be here in 15 years, but you take the risk: I like these people, I like this place, let’s go for it. Then, like any relationship, it’s a combination of hard work and luck. They are an unbelievably uncomplicated bunch. The classic thing you say is, “Oh, we’ve been through good times and bad times.” Not really.

Do you and the orchestra disagree about things? 

Yes, in a very polite, Swedish way. We’ve occasionally disagreed about questions of recruitment. You can come to an impasse if the orchestra wants to appoint someone and you think it’s a bad idea, or vice versa. We had one situation, over the years, where we disagreed about an appointment, and the orchestra disagreed among themselves, which is also normal. 

When that happened, I called a very senior conductor for his advice, and he said something brilliant: “The best thing you can do for the orchestra is to make the decision. The ones who disagree will think you imposed something. But you’re protecting the group from disagreeing among themselves, by making the decision from the outside.” That was educational. 

It’s not really about how the relationship changed. I think it was Karajan who said, “Being a music director is saying the same three or four things to an orchestra every day for 40 years.” 

The classic thing you say is, "Oh, we've been through good times and bad times." Not really. @djharding on 15 uncomplicated years with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra in @vanmusicmag. Click To Tweet

What are your three or four things that you’ve been saying to the SRSO every day for the last 15 years?

We talk a lot about how we play what we see on the page. We talk a lot about accents, sforzatos, and the espressivo signs that look like crescendo–diminuendos. I’m not saying it’s the most important thing, but it’s amazing how much we as musicians need to sensitize ourselves to the enormous range of meaning in these signs. We tend to just punch them. You see something, and you play it with your eyes, rather than checking with your ears to hear whether what you’ve done makes sense. It’s so easy for us to fall into bad habits. 

As a conductor, there’s one advantage: You’re not inside the orchestra. Everyone in the orchestra can have better ears than you, but you hear things that they don’t hear. By regularly pointing out things you hear, you sensitize the musicians to the things you think are important.  

That reminds me of a story. In World War II, they had people who could stand on the coast in England and see airplanes coming over the horizon. And they knew whether the airplanes were British planes coming home or German planes coming to attack. It’s an extremely difficult thing to do: look at a tiny plane in the darkness coming over the horizon and figure out where it’s going. It’s difficult to do and even more difficult to explain. They needed more people to spot the planes, but they didn’t know how to teach them. In the end, they just got the people who couldn’t do it to stand next to the ones who could. The one who could would say, “These are Germans. These are English.” After weeks or months, the others started to be able to do it as well. No one ever said to them, “This is what you look for.”

As a conductor, you can sensitize a group of musicians. At the beginning, you say something about legato, and people look at you like, “I don’t know what he’s talking about.” After a year, they say, “Oh yes.” Just by constantly raising the issue when you’re bothered by it, people start to understand what it is, what it feels like or what it sounds like.

That’s probably something that’s changed in your relationship with the orchestra over the years. 

There’s a fantastic familiarity, and we use a lot of shorthand now. You do find yourself saying a lot of the same things: “Be aware of this.” At the same time, there are a lot of things that—at some point—don’t ever need to be said again. 

Still, it can be humbling: You listen to the orchestra, and you think, “We’ve done great work for 15 years.” Then you listen to a concert from 16 years ago, and you realize, “They were pretty fucking great already.” [Laughs.]

What do you think is the right amount of time for a music director and an orchestra to be together? 

If it weren’t still so happy and productive, I wouldn’t still be here. It’s a beautiful thing. 

But you know, people always think, “The minute it stops being a positive and productive relationship, you have to bring it to the end.” I wonder if it’s almost the other way around: if we have to stop when it becomes too easy.

It’s important that, when you go to an orchestra with an idea, they give it back to you 100 percent, because that’s how you discover that it was a bad idea. When an orchestra takes your idea and tones it down, you’re left with that. You can be hindered from learning when an orchestra protects you from your own idiocy. Sometimes, [with the SRSO], I’d like a little bit more of a tussle. But I’m in love with the orchestra’s commitment. 

How can you simulate the kind of long-term work you’ve been describing when you’re a guest conductor and have just three or four days to work with an orchestra? 

It’s a different job. I genuinely think there are two jobs as a conductor. They have some things in common, but they’re actually different professions with different goals. Some people are good at both of them, and some people are really, really good at one and they’re not so good at the other. Then there are those of us who are not very good at either. [Laughs.]

I’m lucky enough to know the Vienna Philharmonic. When I’m conducting them, I can hear that I’m a little bit tense in my shoulder. When that orchestra switches it on, they look at the conductor absolutely. Everything that goes through your mind and through your body is translated into music. It’s mind-blowing. 

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That sounds a little terrifying.

It’s terrifying, yes. They all joke there, “If we like a conductor, we’ll make it sound good, and if you don’t, we’ll play what they conduct.” 

When you’re the music director of an orchestra, there are things that have to be fixed. That means taking them apart, and you can’t always put them back together by Thursday night. Sometimes you have to sacrifice in the short term to do long-term work. 

It was interesting when I went to the Orchestre de Paris [in the 2016-17 season]. I was worried. My first program was Schumann’s “Szenen aus Goethes Faust.” They rose to the occasion, but I remember the feeling in the rehearsals. Everything I was saying, everything I was asking for, was making them feel like a less good orchestra than they felt before. I’m saying all of this more generally, because the Orchestre de Paris is in great shape, but the image is, You go into a nightclub. The next morning, you come in to clean the nightclub, and you turn the lights on. It doesn’t look as good as it did at 5:30 a.m. when everyone was going home, and it’s not because anything’s changed. 

Some of the work we do in Stockholm, and some of the work we did with the Orchestre de Paris, was saying, “We’re going to work on stuff now that isn’t comfortable. That means what sounded great six months ago might not sound as good right now. We had to go through that in order to build these muscles, to add these colors or find these new things.”

It sounds like you prefer the in-depth work of the music director to guest conducting.

I was brought up to think that was the most important thing. The big influences on me, Simon Rattle, Seiji Ozawa, and Mariss Jansons, were three guys who worked for such a long period of time in their different ways with one orchestra. Simon was a model of someone who committed long past the moment when the market said he should “upgrade.” He was like, “Why? I’m doing something here.” I was brought up to think like that. 

There’s enormous satisfaction in slowly building something. But I made my conducting debut 30 years ago, and I’m starting to feel as if I know my job. With that comes the pleasure of saying, I can also make something happen more quickly. I spent years being the guy who needs lots of time, who wants to control everything and talk about everything. I’m changing, and I’m starting to enjoy [guest conducting], too.

"You listen to the orchestra, and you think, 'We've done great work for 15 years.' Then you listen to a concert from 16 years ago, and you realize, 'They were pretty fucking great already.'" @djharding on working with the Swedish Radio Symphony… Click To Tweet

Let’s talk about flying and music. In 2018, you joined Air France as an A320 pilot. In Skyfaring, by the pilot and writer Mark Vanhoenacker…

An unbelievably poetic book…

…one thing that struck me was what Vanhoenacker wrote about listening to music on airplanes. Obviously, you can’t listen to music while you’re piloting the airplane because it could be a distraction. Is there music that you like to listen to when you’re a passenger?

Being a passenger and being a pilot is such a different experience. When you’re a passenger, a plane is an incredible place to watch a movie, read a book, or listen to music. There’s something heightened about your emotional state. I never cry watching movies unless I’m sitting in the airplane, and then I find myself unbelievably sentimental. I don’t know what it is. I can assure you that I’m cool as ice when I’m sitting in the front. It’s strange.

I remember going with a pilot friend to do some Visual Flight Rules flying [piloting the aircraft by sight, as opposed to by instruments—Ed.]. We were in the south of France, flying along the coast toward Italy. The weather was beautiful, and [under Visual Flight Rules], you don’t have to fly from point A to point B at a certain altitude. You’re in touch with the controller: they give you information about the traffic, but you’re responsible for your routing, you’re responsible for looking out the window. As long as you obey the rules of the air, you’re free. You’re flying like a bird.

My friend said to me, “I want you to experience something. I’m going to take the radio. I’m going to be extremely vigilant. I’m going to have my eyes everywhere, on everything. I want you to put the headphones on, listen to your favorite piece of music and just fly.”

I absolutely hated it. [Laughs.]

Why? What piece did you choose? 

I can’t remember. I was just like, “What do I have downloaded on my phone?” But the music took up too much space in my mind for me to feel comfortable being in the plane. Or maybe there was something in me that was like, “You do this to switch the music off.” People look at me in the street like a weirdo because I’m always singing something.

You were singing in the cab on the way over here.

Oh God, I’m sorry. Since the age of eight, there’s been music playing in my head all day. Doing something else that requires a lot of focus—so you switch the music off for a little while—is quite restful for someone who belongs to that group of rather obsessed music people. 

When I learned to fly, I wanted to give myself the gift of learning something new. I thought it wouldn’t do any harm to slow down with the conducting a tiny bit. I wanted to find something where I could express the other bits of my brain. Music is such a weird thing: You’re always a failure. [Laughs.] If you succeed, it means you didn’t set the bar high enough. It’s also vague and unbelievably subjective. 

I said, “I probably need space in my life for something a little bit more objective, which will mean I’ll be more at ease with how subjective music is. It’ll be good for me as a musician, and good for me as a human being.” 

When I was a very young conductor, I met Simon Rattle, and he was always telling people, “This kid has got such a phenomenal, natural gift as a conductor.” I went through years where the most amazing conductor I knew said I have a phenomenal natural gift. I never questioned it. You work with these chamber orchestras, and they cover up for all your weaknesses. You say, “I want it like this,” then bam and it’s off.

Then you get invited to more things, and you find yourself standing in front of orchestras who look at you and they’re like, “What are you doing?” I realized that maybe I took it for granted that I was physically a good conductor. Maybe I had some bad physical habits. I called up a friend who is a conducting professor. I asked him if he could spend some time with me at my rehearsals and concerts, watch me, and talk to me about what I could do better. I became addicted to this incredible thing of having someone show you the path to doing it better; then making it better; and getting that enormous rush of, “Shit, it works better now.” 

When all of that came together, I thought, What am I going to do? I had flown a little bit when I was a teenager. I was always fascinated by it. I really admired pilots for their renaissance state, they seemed to know something about so many things. So I decided to get my private pilot license. 

I fell in love with flying an airplane: Being in control of something in three dimensions is an extraordinary gift. I also fell in love with learning to do something new and difficult. We all know that any intelligent musician spends their life learning. But it’s not the same thing as trying to learn completely new skills in your mid-40s. I loved how something seemed insurmountable, and then step by step, you find that you can get there. 

I understand the perspective of people who say that music is such a difficult and important thing that you should devote your entire life to it. It’s an easy argument to make. It might be right for some people, but I think it’s wrong. It doesn’t make me a better musician to have nothing in my brain except music. 

Does flying help with your music-making or vice versa? 

I don’t just fly because it’s useful. I do it because I love it. But I’ve learned so much through conducting: It’s a musical realm, but your means of creating music is other people. I can’t say that I’ve suddenly become the world’s most patient person, or that I suddenly have no moments where I’m frustrated. But I’ve learned so much about what that means.

You can’t integrate everything you learn instantly, but I’ve learned a lot about the non-musical side of conducting. As for the musical side, as I said, I have more time in my head where I’m not hearing music, but where the music is percolating. 

Pilots have clear guidelines about how to communicate with one another. Have you taken anything from those guidelines into your rehearsal strategy, like dealing with frustration? 

You’ll always find someone who will say, “He’s so impatient.” I’ve had people I’ve known for a long time tell me [after I got my pilot’s license], “You’re still Daniel.” But I’ve got more resources to call upon. 

As a conductor, you turn up to the first rehearsal super prepared. The cliché is that the conductor comes in and the orchestra has played the piece 1,000 times, but nowadays I often come into a rehearsal with a piece I’ve done 50 times and they’ve never seen before. Often, you’re ready to go on Monday morning, but the orchestra is ready Tuesday afternoon. [Laughs.] If you’re super motivated it can come across as impatience. 

When I started flying, I’ve improved some things, and other things I’m just more aware of. Take standard operating procedures in flying. In rehearsal, I’ll tell the first trumpet to enter at a specific spot. You discover later on that they didn’t hear where you were talking about. In the airplane, that would be: “First trumpet, the B-flat needs to be a 16th note and a 16th-note rest.” 

The first trumpet would say, “The B-flat needs to be a 16th note and a 16th-note rest. First trumpet.” 

And I would say, “Readback is correct.” [Laughs.] 

In flying, we’ll often sit in the cockpit at the end of the flight and do a quick debrief. While it’s still fresh in your mind: What could we have done better? Where could I have helped you better? What was good? You articulate it. 

When you finish the dress rehearsal, you might say a couple things, but normally, it’s like, “It’s a dress rehearsal, why’s he talking?” Then we play the concert and nobody ever talks about it. I should say clearly that I’m not suggesting putting any of this in place to an orchestra in case it terrifies anyone. But there are things we could learn from the professionalism of other fields.

Music and flying are both wonderful, but we have to admit that being an international conductor and an airline pilot are two professions that are heavy on the environment. Is that something that’s on your mind? 

I don’t have an answer to that, but nobody does. Flying is tricky because of the laws of physics. Cleaning it up is an insanely complex thing to do. People should know that the friends I have who work as engineers, aircraft designers or anything to do with the technical side of what happens–beyond safety, [environmental impact] is the subject. People are so passionately devoted to doing everything they can.

Aviation will get there. And we need aviation. The availability of mass, efficient transport that makes our planet seem small, that makes us feel that the problems and interests of everyone else on the planet are within touching distance–that’s great. The problems and threats we face today can’t be solved by looking at our belly buttons. Aviation is a massive driver of a sense of global community.

Sometimes I hear, “We have the internet.” I’m no expert, but sometimes I think that dehumanizes and creates as much misunderstanding and negative connection as it does [community]. I don’t think a Zoom call is the same thing as human contact.

Right, and I don’t think it makes sense to ground all the flights immediately. But I do wonder: Is it worth bringing a whole orchestra from Europe to China for a four-day tour, for example? 

It’s good to ask the question. There are other reasons to ask that question too: With every project, you should be asking yourself, “Is it worth it?” Even if you could do it with zero carbon emissions.

I know that touring with an orchestra—the activity of playing a concert many times, in different halls, for different audiences—is incredibly important. That doesn’t mean you have to do it with an airplane. But it’s massively nourishing. 

That makes sense from the musicians’ perspective. But as a listener in Berlin, say, where we have so many excellent professional orchestras, do we need the London Symphony Orchestra to come as well? 

The necessity argument is easy to win. Of course you don’t need to. I’m a little tired of the necessity argument. If we’re going to go down that road, none of it is necessary. 

It occupies me, as it occupies everyone who is involved. Is the conversation, Should everybody stop flying? That’s not the same conversation as, Should we do what we can where possible to reduce emissions? People need to travel. They need to know each other. Knowledge of other people and other places is fundamental to our ability to solve climate change. None of that’s to say that flying doesn’t have huge environmental costs. There is no easy answer.

There are some big music director jobs open right now: The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, the New York Philharmonic, most recently the Munich Philharmonic. Do you want to throw your hat into the ring for any of those?

The wonderful thing is that you never have to; it’s never appropriate to throw your hat in the ring, right? I don’t think it works like that. 

Realistically speaking, classical music is a small world. Agents and orchestra managers talk all the time. I’m really not trying to be naive, but most of that stuff really honestly goes on far away from us. 

It’s a weird moment for me to think about the next job, when we just announced that I’ve signed a new contract here [with the SRSO, until 2025—Ed.]. I’ll be completely honest with you: I’m thrilled to have been here 15 years, and I’m thrilled to be staying here a few more years, but of course I think, They need a new challenge, and I need a new challenge. For all the reasons we spoke about before; for all the best reasons.

The next decision I make…it’s always a risk. But the next place I go, I’m going to stay for a long time. It’s going to be the place where I settle in and do something. I have no idea where it will be. I’m not being coy with you. We’ll see what happens. 

The Munich Philharmonic is interesting, because Gergiev is out now that he refused to denounce the Russian invasion of Ukraine

It’s hugely complicated for them short-term. They’ve got massive holes in their calendar. Anybody who’s got a stick and a passport—we’re trying to help them just to keep their shit together. It’s a tricky moment for them. I’ll probably do some concerts with them in the next few months, because I can, and it’s a fantastic orchestra.

What about the U.S.? 

Years before I would ever think about being a music director in the U.S., I would need to find my way there. It’s never been a place where I felt comfortable. I went there when I was very young; I had good relationships with important European orchestras, but the same things that worked here didn’t work in the U.S. I was inexperienced with big institutionalized symphonies that don’t want you to fluff around. Really occasionally, even just asking for something went down badly. It wasn’t that I asked rudely; it was just like, “Don’t touch.” Now I’m curious to find out what does work. Even if I find out what works and decide it’s not really for me—that’s OK. I want to figure it out. ¶

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Jeffrey Arlo Brown

... has been an editor at VAN since 2015. His work has also appeared in Slate, The Baffler, The Outline, The Calvert Journal, and Electric Lit. He lives in Berlin.