In the lion's den

Daniel Harding is set to become, at 20, the youngest conductor ever at the Proms. But can he silence the why-not-me cynics and avoid burn-out?

Malcolm Hayes
Sunday 04 August 1996 23:02

Where are all the young conductors? The cry is heard ever more desperately throughout every corner of the classical music trade, as the mushrooming global growth of orchestras and opera companies continues to be matched by a persistent shortage of star-quality individuals to conduct them. Still, let no one say that Daniel Harding isn't trying to do his bit. An unknown name even a couple of years ago, he now has his work cut out keeping his professional balance as both he and the music world witness a rise to prominence that has been meteoric by any standards.

While Harding was still a student at Chetham's School in Manchester, he was invited by Simon Rattle to be assistant conductor at rehearsals with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Since then, there's been no holding him. A sequence of debut engagements all over Europe has served notice of an ear and technique that can untangle the most convoluted modern scores, along with a crowd-pulling dynamism to match. Now, at the ripe old age of 20, comes yet another remarkable first. On Sunday, when Harding steps on to the platform of the Albert Hall to conduct Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale, he will be the youngest conductor ever to appear at the Proms.

He was born in Oxford in 1975 and gravitated early towards Chetham's School, with its admirable record in combining specialist musical training with a broad-based education. Harding concedes that along with his general music studies he once upon a time played the trumpet as well, a career from which he insists he retired at the age of 14 ("I was too lazy"), but not before some appearances in the ranks of the National Youth Orchestra. "I remember that when I was 13 I came up with the idea of conducting. Needless to say, the advice was 'Don't do it.'

"The way it turned out wasn't really planned. These things so often aren't. Some friends of mine at Chetham's had got together to do a performance of Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, and there I was, conducting it. Michael Ball, one of my teachers, got in touch with Simon Rattle and suggested that we went along and played it to him. After that, Simon got in touch and asked me to come and work with the CBSO in the rehearsals for Henze's Seventh Symphony."

Rattle, who himself came to prominence in his late teens, knows more than most about the obstacles confronting a young conductor. Besides Harding, Sian Edwards and Mark Wigglesworth are among those who have been helped by the CBSO's music director in those make-or-break early stages. "At Chetham's I'd been doing mostly chamber music," says Harding. "Finding an orchestra to start working with is so difficult. It was a fantastic break."

He was appointed assistant conductor to the CBSO for the 1993-4 season, during which he made his professional debut conducing Bartok's The Miraculous Mandarin suite. This eruptive score has turned up frequently in his concerts since then, as has The Soldier's Tale: Stravinsky's dark little masterpiece of music theatre is something of a Harding party piece.

Cynics - and there are plenty of the why-not-me variety in the music business - have been heard muttering that Harding just conducts the same handful of works over and over again. He is unfazed by the criticism. "Simon was very firm on this. He told me: 'When you're starting out, you're going to be working for the first time with a lot of orchestras in a lot of different places, and you won't have had time to build a relationship with them yet. So what you need is a hard core of two or three pieces that you know you can bring off really well, whatever the circumstances.' I've always remembered that."

Meanwhile, his ability to learn complex scores quickly and from scratch has been causing quite a stir. Recently, Harding replaced Rattle, who had been called away by a family illness, in a CBSO concert in Paris at three days' notice. On the programme was Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), which he knew only in Schoenberg's chamber-orchestra arrangement, and Schoenberg's Piano Concerto, which he didn't know at all. The result amazed pundits, punters, and fellow-performers alike.

Orchestras and chamber groups the world over are so thankful when a conductor of this level of talent comes along that the risks of over-exposure and subsequent burn-out are correspondingly extreme. Harding seems level-headed about the danger. "Building a repertory needs a lot of care. Basically I'm working my way backwards, and trying to avoid things like Tchaikovsky symphonies that aren't for me. I'm going to conduct a lot better if I do the things I really love." Does he share the view that the classical repertory, while technically child's play compared with something like Schoenberg's Piano Concerto, is musically the hardest of all? "That's absolutely true, I'm looking forward to conducting Mozart's G minor Symphony when I'm less terrified of doing it."

He has been spending the past year as assistant to Claudio Abbado, music director of the Berlin Philharmonic. Does that mean actually getting to conduct one of the greatest orchestras in the world? "Well, not at this stage! But I've done a concert at the Salzburg Easter Festival with the Scharoun Ensemble, which is named after the architect of the Philharmonie, the Berlin Philharmonic's concert hall in Berlin. The players are members of the orchestra, so that was a wonderful experience.

"But what I'm mostly there to do is help out however I'm needed - sitting in on rehearsals to check the balance of the sound in the auditorium, marking up the orchestra's parts, that kind of thing. And when I'm not doing that I can wander around the orchestra's library. The other day I was looking at some scores that Furtwangler used to conduct from." And what were the great man's markings like? "Pretty much illegible! Just like his beat, so the players tell me."

The next stage of Harding's thoughtfully planned progress has him under a deliberately less prominent spotlight: in the autumn he begins a season as the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra's principal guest conductor. "They take the whole business of artistic provision seriously in the Nordic countries. I'm impressed with how good the players are, and there's a huge amount of goodwill. Also Zubin Mehta got his first job there, so that's a nice precedent." He has also been invited back to conduct the Rotterdam Philharmonic, with whom he'll be accompanying 16-year-old Sarah Chang in Sibelius's Violin Concerto.

Harding joins in the worldwide chorus of wonder at the Chang phenomenon of astonishing artistic maturity within a teenage frame ("Simon says he thinks it must be something to do with reincarnation"). He's looking forward to the occasion for another reason, too. "It'll be such a relief," he says, "for once, to be working with someone who's actually younger than I am."

n Daniel Harding conducts members of Birmingham Royal Ballet and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group in Stravinsky's 'The Soldier's Tale' at the Proms on Sunday at 4pm; the semi-staged performance is the first of three concerts in the Proms' Stravinsky Day, with further concerts at the Albert Hall at 6.30pm and 9.30pm. Daniel Harding also conducts the Netherlands Wind Ensemble in the late-night Prom on 22 August at 10pm. Tickets and information: 0171-589 8212

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