MILAN (AP) — When conductor Daniel Harding lands in Rome to take over the role of music director at one of the world’s oldest music institutions, there is a chance he could be piloting the plane.
The 47-year-old British conductor has a second career as an Air France pilot, earning his private and commercial pilot licenses after age 40 to satisfy a lifelong “curiosity and passion.”
“I found that flying and the different discipline, the different way of working, helped me as a musician, a conductor and as a person,’’ Harding told The Associated Press ahead of the announcement Monday of his new post at the The Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia orchestra, starting in the fall of 2024.
He takes over from Antonio Pappano, who is leaving to become chief conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra.
Harding had an unusually young start as a conductor, and will arrive at the Santa Cecilia orchestra — listed by BBC Music Magazine as one of the top 20 in the world — after 18 years as the principal conductor of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. The gigs will overlap for one year.
By his own reckoning, he is still learning the role of conductor.
“Conducting is the ultimate long game. What you do in your early 20s, your 30s, none of it matters. It is all about trying to find your way to being a real conductor in your 60s. There is a long way still to go,’’ Harding said.
It takes “a very, very long time,’ he said, to learn how to balance a musician’s need for freedom while also imposing discipline “to make something coherent and tight,” Harding said. “I think we all try to do interesting, and hopefully beautiful things, along the path.”
His schedule breaking up conducting with flying for Air France eight or nine days a month helps by changing his focus. ”I think all conductors should spend some months a year as a normal employee, part of a team, serving others,” he said. “It’s great!”
Harding’s parents were both amateur musicians “very keen that the children should enjoy music,” he said. He was just 16 when he conducted alongside Simon Rattle, who took him under his wing after receiving a tape of the teenager conducting a school orchestra. “He introduced me to the public and he said, ‘When I met Daniel I watched him conduct and I decided I have two choices. I can help him, or I can kill him,’’’ Harding said.
He soon became an assistant to Claudio Abbado, conducting the Berlin Philharmonic at just 21. Daniel Barenboim — who subbed for him at La Scala last month after Harding’s father fell ill — has shared precious advice.
“Barenboim told me that when you start conducting full time, when you’re conducting every week, it will take you 15 years, then you will start to understand what you’re doing. Start. It is such an elusive thing how you harness all this incredible ability and possibility there is around you in an orchestra,” Harding said.
Harding will open his tenure with the Santa Cecilia with a concert performance of Tosca, which he called “the most Roman of operas.” It is one he hasn’t conducted before, and will therefore be “learning from the orchestra’s language and the orchestra’s experience. And that’s very exciting.”
He also is planning a Mahler cycle, the composer he said he has most conducted, and with many orchestras, “so therefore is the composer where I feel I have the most perspective on the music.”
As he makes his mark on Santa Cecilia, Harding plans to take advantage of the layers of Rome’s history as backdrops. That includes getting out into the city’s basilicas with the Santa Cecilia chorus with the sacred repertoire, like the Mozart Requiem.
He also wants to work across artistic disciplines to come up with new ways of representing classical music to the Roman audience, “to confront different eras and epochs and see what the contrast teaches us.”
“We will have to find the repertoire that is nourishing and interesting for us, the musicians, and for our public,” Harding said.