‘Nobody’s complaining: everyone’s in heaven!’ chuckles Daniel Harding as I catch him, post-performance, in Bergamo; the first concert in a tour of Mahler’s monumental Ninth Symphony that will see him and his orchestra, the Swedish Radio Symphony, perform the work in a different Italian city almost every night for the following eight days. ‘It takes so much work to get a piece like that together, it doesn’t come quickly, and there is no substitution for the things you discover in performance,’ he says. ‘In fact, it’s the only way to get near to doing it justice.’
I wonder if the symphony changes each night, being the only work the orchestra are focusing on in such a concentrated time? ‘Well, it definitely gets calmer, in the way it breathes’ he reflects. ‘It’s an incredibly complicated piece: it’s very rare that anybody has the main line for very long, things are passed around the whole time, so the more you perform it, the more they’re comfortable with how everything dovetails together. And the more flexible they get, the more like chamber music it becomes.’
In a season when countless orchestras around the world are mounting Mahler symphony cycles, Harding jokes that he is doing no more Mahler than usual this year. In Stockholm, in fact, where he has been Music Director since 2007, he deliberately avoided scheduling a complete cycle. ‘I love Mahler, but when he said: “my time will come”, I don’t think he imagined this!’ Harding laughs. ‘Like all things in life, I think you appreciate it even more if you don’t overdo it.’
Nevertheless, following the Italian marathon, all of his upcoming engagements, from Asia to Europe, seem include the Bohemian master, who died exactly a century ago. Which is fitting, because Harding, who is still only 35 and looks even younger on the podium, has developed into one of Britain’s most formidable and radiant Mahler interpreters.
Next up, he goes directly to Vienna to perform the Fourth Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic, which promises to be a very special collaboration. ‘There’s something completely exciting that this orchestra has, and which nobody else can copy,’ he tells me. ‘It’s their sense of rubato. There are many great Mahler orchestras in the world, but with the Vienna Phil, nothing is ever square. When they play Mahler, in which there is so much influence of the Austrian dances, everything is flexible. Everything dances.’ This suits Harding’s temperament down to the ground, for as he explains: ‘I’m interested in what’s not exact: for me, that’s where the charm and the tension lies. With that orchestra, the whole thing just comes alive with the tiniest little hesitation between beats – it’s thrilling.’
As their conductor, then, how does the dynamic work? ‘It’s not something I control, because the minute it’s controlled it’s not interesting anymore,’ he admits. ‘They can be very literal, and they do wait to be asked, but if you give them the space, they instinctively know how to do magical things in the spaces in between. It’s a great gift they give.’
Is it their heritage, I wonder, that makes the Vienna Philharmonic unique among orchestras in this regard? After all, you need only experience them on New Year’s Day to understand that dance gestures and vocabularies come somewhat instinctively to them.
‘Of course it’s their language and their tradition, and something they pride themselves on,’ Harding suggests. ‘I’m not a great believer that the way you articulate music is related to your nationality, but I do think it’s incredibly related to your language – which is nice, because anyone can learn any language, so it’s very inclusive. Of course, they are also a great opera orchestra, so they know that flexibility is everything. And they spend a lot of their time just listening, which is very important…’
After Vienna comes an ‘exciting’ Asian tour with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, one of the world’s most unique ensembles, with which Harding has been associated for over thirteen years. Following performances in Singapore’s remarkable new Esplanade Concert Hall, the orchestra, with a programme that includes Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, will head to Japan, for poignant dates in Tokyo, Kanazawa and Osaka.
Harding will then remain in Japan for the next stage in his recent partnership with the New Japan Philharmonic. ‘My first concert as Music Partner happened about six hours after the earthquake and tsunami hit on March 11th,’ he tells me. ‘It could have been a slightly inauspicious beginning and of course, in many ways, doing a concert that evening felt incredibly unimportant in the context of what had just happened. But for our relationship I think it was actually a very positive thing: going through major experiences together is what builds bonds.’
That night, they were playing – you guessed it – Mahler; his Fifth Symphony, which will be featured again in the upcoming concert series, including a charity gala to raise funds for the earthquake and tsunami relief effort. ‘For all of us, that piece has become very linked to what happened,’ Harding explains. ‘The Adagietto is a love letter, really. Leonard Bernstein always said that he took it so famously slowly because he’d instinctively played it like that at John F. Kennedy’s funeral and forever after the piece was bound up in those extraordinary events. Even though he knew it wasn’t quite what Mahler meant, it became something else for him and he could not disassociate the piece from the emotion of that moment. For us in Japan, that night, it was full of tenderness and full of love. Within the symphony itself, it is the moment where things shift: after the darkness of the early movements it turns towards the light; towards something more positive. And it definitely had that feeling that night, as if it was almost taking care of something.’
The dramatic backdrop to their alliance aside, Harding is thrilled in general to be conducting this ‘fantastic’ orchestra in Japan, a country he ‘just adores’. ‘They are lovely people and unbelievably dedicated and devoted to what they do,’ he says. ‘They execute their passion in a very serious, committed way, and I really get off on that. There’s a massive amount of repertoire but they turn up incredibly prepared, they want to work very hard. And, happily, we have lots of rehearsal time.’
That is in marked contrast to his experience at the London Symphony Orchestra, where he has been Principal Guest Conductor since 2006. ‘All the orchestras I work with are in their different ways brilliant and devoted,’ Harding enthuses. ‘But we don’t have such a luxury of time with the LSO because of the way things are in London: for financial reasons, there is very little opportunity to rehearse. So the musicians have to develop this incredible ability to be very quick and efficient on minimal rehearsal.’ With all the arguments raging in the UK about orchestra funding at the moment, are they almost hoist by the petard of their own efficiency, I wonder? Harding laughs. ‘Well, exactly: the problem with the LSO is you could cut their arms off, let alone their money, and they’d still give you a brilliant concert.’
As one of Britain’s most celebrated and in-demand young conductors, some changes are afoot. From next year Harding will end his position with his beloved Mahler Chamber Orchestra, which will give him more time to spend in Stockholm, London and Tokyo; he also needs to juggle commitments at La Scala and the Berliner Staatsoper, as well as other guest engagements around the world. No wonder he is excited about the prospect of actually taking some time off this summer. ‘I started doing Aix-in-Provence in 1998, then Salzburg, and all the other festivals, and as a result I’ve had one summer holiday since I was 22!’ he laughs. ‘It was last year. And it was so wonderful I’m doing it again this year. I can’t wait to take my kids to a beach somewhere and just unwind and relax and do absolutely nothing.’ He pauses. ‘Mind you, the danger is, once you do stop, and you really settle, you start to think, I could really get used to this! I might never go back…’
In which case, all I can say is: let’s hope he doesn’t get used to it.