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Daniel Harding: Conducting's One-Man British Invasion

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The booklet photos to Daniel Harding’s latest CD present him looking very serious and cool -- a stark contrast to the music within. That music is Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, that hedonistic cantata of bawdy medieval poetry and thundering choruses. It's a perfect canvas, though, for a 35-year-old British conductor who is increasingly known for his tackling of sprawling, high-drama scores.

A former prodigy who was spotted by Simon Rattle at age 17, Harding is now the principal guest conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra and principal conductor of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra.

We reached him in Santa Barbara, CA, where he was on tour with the Dresden Staatskapelle, along with his two young children. He tells us about the dark power of Orff’s music, the youth movement on podiums and why an Old Spice commercial turned him on to classical music.

You’re quite a road warrior this season, touring with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, appearing with your hometown band, the LSO, and currently guesting conducting with the Dresden Staatskapelle. What is that dynamic like?

Whether you’re on the road or at home, the role of the guest conductor is always a slightly bizarre, artificial thing. The thing is that touring is really how you get to know each other. I’ve known this orchestra for seven or eight years and this is the third time we’ve gone on tour together. Socially, it shouldn’t be underestimated how important that is. Music exists, in many ways, for social reasons.

Is it ever awkward seeing musicians in the hotel lobby the next morning after a concert?

You mean that 'morning after feeling?' You wonder if you should sneak out of the hotel in the middle of the night. I don’t think that’s a problem. It is true, there’s no denying everyone has to get used to it. You see people at breakfast, you see people at the swimming pool or the bar. But when you get beyond that and start to relate to each other as human beings than without any hierarchical thing, that’s really, really healthy.

You’ve just recorded Orff’s massive crowd-pleaser, Carmina Burana with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra. Is it a conductor-pleaser too?

We had a wonderful time doing it. It’s one of those pieces where everybody thinks they know it. But once you get inside it, it’s so much more than the overall impression you keep in the back of your mind. It’s wonderfully written. Everyone has something satisfying and rewarding to do. You often hear it as generic 20th-century exciting rhythmical music. Of course, there’s all of that. But there’s a kind of body to it, and a warmth to it, which goes well beyond the superficial rhythmic excitement.

Do you feel that the work’s ubiquity in movies, commercials and even hip-hop might drive more people to your recording?

You can’t deny its associations. Everybody’s heard it somewhere or another. Because it’s something that very easily conjures up images and in that sense it’s very uncomplicated. I knew the piece as a kid because it was in the Old Spice advert. Not the greatest of all gentlemen’s after-shaves, but I remember being thrilled by that. That really works. The other associations are more problematic.

You mean the fact that it was hugely popular in Nazi Germany. The work was premiered for the Nazi party in 1937 and Orff won official support from the Reich. How do you reconcile that with its current popularity?

For me, it’s not reconciling it. It’s interesting to delve into and think about it and to know about it. I don’t feel myself in a position to make judgments. You can’t ignore it. In the end there’s nothing political about the piece and the text.

But wasn’t Orff somehow complicit with these ties?

We know there are a lot of questions about him and what he thought and his role and that’s really difficult to know about. The aesthetic of it -- there’s a clear relationship. If you think of Nazi architecture, you think of how they dressed up ancient Greek temples in 20th-century packaging. The Nazis did that with architecture and they did that with their huge rallies and enormous flags and all this ritual, which has a feeling of timelessness and ancient authority. The music has a medieval text and folksongs that have the seeming authority of having been around for hundreds of years. Then you package it up in a modern language. It’s very, very manipulative and very, very effective.

You're conducting the Dresden Staatskapelle in the Brahms Requiem at Lincoln Center on October 31. Do large-scale choral pieces hold a special appeal for you?

I really feel most at home when I conduct music and I know what it’s about. I’m not saying for a second that the Brahms Second Symphony isn’t about something. But conducting a piece like the Brahms Requiem or doing one of the Bach passions or any opera is musically the time when I feel most alive. That may just be because I’m passionate about the relationship between music and the text. Or it may be a weakness because of my lack of imagination when I do abstract music. If I was sent to Alcatraz for 20 years and could take only one piece I’m sure I’d take something with a text.

Dresden is known for its unique string sound. Can you put your finger on what that’s all about?

If I really understood how it worked I would just shamelessly copy it. If the guys in the orchestra really understood how it worked they’d be traveling around the world as highly paid consultants telling everybody else how to do it. It’s a mysterious thing. It’s got a lot to do with the intensity of the playing. Even in the softest things they really cram an enormous amount of contact and body into the sound. It’s got a lot to do simply with what you have in your ears.

Much has been made of how orchestras are increasingly turning to young conductors. Are there more opportunities available to you as a result?

It’s wonderful. The really exciting thing is when I started, I was conducting in Europe when I was 17 or 18. For many years, there was nobody of my age that I could talk to and share things with. Suddenly, in the last five or seven years, it’s this massive generational shift. It’s so positive that there’s a generation of conductors who talk to each other. It’s such an incredibly isolated and at times lonely profession and there are so few people who really understand what it’s about. You need to have colleagues to talk with things about.

There's a lot of concern, of course, about the graying of the orchestra audience. Is the youth movement on podiums translating to younger people in the seats?

There is a lot more of that going on. I was at a concert the other day in a small town in Germany and I was really shocked because I was the youngest person in the audience by about 30 years. The best bit about that was being shocked: The audiences I’m used to seeing are absolutely not like that. In Stockholm there are a lot of young people.

Interview has been condensed and edited.