Daniel Harding: Lightning conductor

At 30, he has arrived at a point in his career that most conductors would be happy to reach at 50
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The Independent Online

Asked in a newspaper interview four years ago to describe his conducting style, Daniel Harding came up with a one-word answer: "Fast". On this point, there is something of a consensus. Reviews of his performances are studded with references to "explosive energy", "headlong excitement", "panache", with adjectives such as "dynamic", "electric", "hurtling" and "hectic".

A glance at his CV confirms the impression that he is in a hurry - professional debut at 19, conducting the Berlin Philharmonic and making his Proms debut at 21, appearing at Covent Garden at 23. No conductor in recent history, not even Simon Rattle, has enjoyed quite such a meteoric rise, or been loaded with quite so many expectations.

On Wednesday this week, Harding's career reached a new peak, when he made his debut at La Scala opera house in Milan, inaugurating the season with a performance of Mozart's Idomeneo. It is hard to overstate the scale of the achievement, or the compliment being paid to Harding's talents, given his age (still only 30) and nationality (no British conductor has ever opened a La Scala season before).

The occasion ought to have been fraught. Riccardo Muti left the house this summer in some dudgeon after 19 years at the helm - not before time, felt most of the musicians and many of the audience, but a hard core still regarded him as irreplaceable, and La Scala fans, the loggionisti, are notoriously volatile.

Having been called in at short notice, Harding was having to fit this Idomeneo into an already bulging international schedule. (He was on a plane to Stockholm the following morning, to conduct a programme of Wagner, Mozart and Mark-Anthony Turnage.) For the first time in his career, too, Harding found himself facing the full glare of the British press, as they cracked all too predictable puns about Daniel entering the lion's den - the opera-loving James Naughtie even broadcast a special segment from Milan on Radio 4's Today.

Harding seems to have taken it all in his stride, afterwards telling reporters that in the interval he'd worried less about the opera than about how his beloved Manchester United were doing against Benfica (quite rightly, as it turned out). In the event the night was, unequivocally, a triumph. Not only no boos, but standing ovations and glowing tributes in the Italian press.

Of Harding's gifts, there can be no doubt - frankly, who is going to argue with endorsements from Rattle and Claudio Abbado (who called him "my little genius")? But the warmth of the reception he has had in Italy is a consequence not simply of his ability to read a score and hold a beat, but of his whole style.

In the mid-20th century, conductors were autocrats, given to outbursts of temperament and treating their players with feudal disdain: echoes of this stereotype could be detected in reports of the rift between Muti and the staff and musicians at La Scala, in which the maestro was characterised as dictatorial and dogmatic, an obstacle to change.

Harding has been adopted as a symbol of youth and change - reviewing his Idomeneo, the newspaper Corriere della Sera talked of an "undeniably modern reading", characterising the whole production as a victory for "the new, young La Scala of open doors and transparency". He gained approving comments for his habit of wearing a T-shirt to rehearsals; for the Gazzetta dello Sport, he was photographed wearing a Man U strip, telling them that his hero was Roy Keane. It helps that Harding looks even younger than he is - Italian papers compared him to Harry Potter. (Never mind that he's fair-haired.)

Modernity and informality are also the keynotes of his personal website, danielharding.com. Along with all the necessary apparatus of biography, discography, press notices and forthcoming engagements, you can read Harding's occasional blog. Breathless, somewhat under-punctuated tributes to orchestras and soloists, and photographs of the Harding family (including George Gordon Harding, snapped very shortly after his birth in August this year) take turns with asides about the (mis)fortunes of Man United. (He has a very frank distaste for the club's new owner Malcolm Glazer.) Without wishing to be unkind, Harding is in many ways the David Cameron of classical music.

The relaxed air is, surely, deceptive: after all, you can't have got where Harding's got, as quickly as he's got there, without being very ambitious. His drive was apparent at an early stage. His parents used to take him to hear the LSO, and his first ambition was to become that orchestra's principal trumpet. (Principal guest conductor, the post he takes up next year, is presumably a pretty good second best.)

By the time Harding was 13, he was playing in the National Youth Orchestra and studying trumpet at Chetham's, the Manchester music school that has churned out a miraculously high proportion of Britain's best young musicians. But once he was playing in orchestras, he realised that conducting was where his real interest lay.

At Chetham's Harding formed his own ensemble, and sent Simon Rattle a tape of them performing the Schoenberg song-cycle Pierrot Lunaire. From this sprang an invitation to sit in on rehearsals of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and, at 16, a job as Rattle's assistant. He did dip his toe into academic life again, beginning a music degree at Cambridge, but that went by the board when Abbado offered him the chance to work in Berlin.

In the run-up to his La Scala debut, the Italian press made much of what they saw as Harding's English air of detachment and irony, though they were pleased to note that in performance he combined it with "Italian passion". In fact, he is the least English of English conductors.

Harding has spoken of an early aversion to English music (since overcome: he has conducted Britten's The Turn of the Screw a number of times, and recorded it in 2002). Of his teens he said, "All I wanted to do was live in Germany, speak German, read German philosophy and study German music". He recalls having "slipped away" to London with a schoolfriend and a teacher to hear Bernard Haitink conduct Die Walküre at Covent Garden.

Over the past decade, most of Harding's work has been on the Continent, and particularly in Germany. He was music director of both the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, not to mention the Trondheim Symphony in Norway, and he has enjoyed close informal links with the Dresdener Staatskapelle, Abbado's Lucerne Festival Orchestra, and the annual festival at Aix-en-Provence.

His wife, Béatrice, a viola player with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, is half French, half German; and until this year, when they bought a house in Pimlico in preparation for his forthcoming stint with the LSO, they lived in Paris.

This has been the sort of training that any young conductor would give his eyeteeth for, but it has had the unfortunate consequence that Harding has not been heard all that often in his native country. Perhaps resentment accounts for a certain ambivalence towards him over here - pride in his achievements muddied by a sense that he's still got a lot to learn.

Critics have frequently bubbled with frustration and disappointment - complaining about tempi taken too fast, about an attention to detail at the expense of overall architecture, about brash gestures that detract from subtler messages.

Back in January this year, reviews of his Mahler Symphony No 4 with the LSO back in January were almost uniformly negative: "Overlit, exaggerated and peculiarly charmless," said Ivan Hewett in The Daily Telegraph; Annette Morreau, in this paper, lamented "uncertainty of tempo" and wondered if Harding understood "what or whom he should be conducting". In The Sunday Times, Anthony Holden was kinder, noting "an unusually high proportion of wrong entries, scratchy string sounds and erratic tempi", but blaming the orchestra for refusing to co-operate. (He may have had in mind stories that some orchestral players regard Harding as arrogant.)

Remarks Harding has made about the superior seriousness of the German classical music scene may have fanned resentment. A record label executive I talked to, who didn't want to be named, said, "I think he's got a huge amount of growing up to do, musically and as a person." He suggested that Harding is too much in Rattle's shadow. "If you listen to his recordings of stuff that Rattle has done, it's bar for bar the same phrasing." Certainly, the criticism most frequently directed at Harding - that he goes for individual effects at the expense of overall form - is the same one Rattle gets.

Still, orchestras can't be all that down on him: the LSO is run by the players, and nobody gets to be principal guest conductor whom they don't like. The tenor Ian Bostridge, who has worked with Harding alongside the LSO, says that they love him. He has known Harding for 10 years, and has performed and recorded songs and opera with him, and he is unreserved in his admiration for Harding's talents.

The reputation for speed he puts down to the fact that "he's really interested in what's gone on in period performance" - specifically, the realisation in recent years that much of the classical repertoire is habitually performed at tempi far slower than the composers originally intended - "and he's one of the few people who can really make it work for a modern orchestra".

Bostridge regards Harding as "a wonderful person". He was particularly impressed when the Harding family stayed at the Bostridge home in London a while back: having conducted a concert at the South Bank one evening, it was Daniel who got up the next morning to deal with their young daughter.

Now that he's going to be living and working regularly in London, perhaps the ambivalence will die down. Interviewed in this paper earlier this week, Harding completed the sentence "a common misperception of me is..." with the words "that I conduct everything fast".

What Harding indisputably brings to an orchestra is not just pace, but dynamic range. Bostridge, who was in Milan on Wednesday to hear Idomeneo, said, "It was incredible to hear La Scala orchestra play with such delicacy." Again and again, reviews of his concerts have marvelled at his ability to draw pianissimos from his players - and then to drive them to huge fortissimos.

At 30, Daniel Harding has arrived at a point in his career that most conductors would be happy to reach at 50; given the traditional longevity of international conductors, he surely has another 40 years to go. Maybe, now, he can afford to slow down, and show us just how great a conductor he is going to be.

A Life in Brief

BORN 31 August 1975 in Oxford.

FAMILY Married to viola player Béatrice Muthelet; they have two children.

EDUCATION Studied trumpet at Chetham's School of Music, Manchester, before becoming assistant to Simon Rattle at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

CAREER Music director, Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen (1997-2003); music director, Mahler Chamber Orchestra (2003-),music director of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra (from 2007).

HE SAYS "I hope people will judge me on the quality of the performance, not on my age or nationality."

THEY SAY "Harding's devotion to music is matched by his love of football, fast cars and planes." - Corriere della Sera