Daniel Harding at Kimmel Tuesday.

Young conductor, firm at the podium

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Daniel Harding will lead the Dresden Staatskapelle Orchestra.

No one more vividly exemplifies the Icarus-like story line now common in the careers of major young conductors than Daniel Harding. Much advance touting. Big entrance into the big time. Fall from grace.

The Oxford-born Harding, who brings the fabled Dresden Staatskapelle Orchestra to the Kimmel Center Tuesday, was 18 years old in 1994 when he was hired by Simon Rattle to be his assistant at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. He quickly went on to the same post at the Berlin Philharmonic, whose Claudio Abbado referred to him as "my little genius." At 21, he was the youngest conductor to perform at the BBC Proms.

Too much too soon? Many critics thought so. But Harding today is back on firm career footing - principal guest conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, music director of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, and principal conductor of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Speaking from Dresden, he wasn't shy in talking about an early career that, to the 35-year-old, seems long ago.

Peter Dobrin: Tell us about this orchestra - its qualities, what makes it special.

Daniel Harding: I think it belongs to this group of orchestras . . . the Gewandhaus and Staatskapelle Berlin, the great orchestras of the former East Germany, and then the Czech Philharmonic and St. Petersburg - all of these orchestras of the former Eastern Bloc who in their different ways have this extraordinary cultural status now.

I guess the period after World War II, when this part of Europe was isolated, was exactly the moment when recordings became such a big deal and everyone became aware of how everyone else played, which was never before the case. Suddenly there became this huge exchange of ideas and traditions - and then there were orchestras, of which the Dresden is a prime example, that were totally isolated from that.

Not only because there were no comings and goings, but because everyone in this orchestra studied with people in this city, so you get this kind of preservation of a way of playing. The orchestra has been a hugely significant force for more than 400 years. . . . They have this way of playing you can identify at about 100 paces blindfolded. Nothing else sounds quite like it. Karajan said it sounded like old burnished gold. . . . There is this kind of luster to the sound. It's dark and it's dense, and it's never brilliant. There is a whole different way of making a sound, and it's quite extraordinary.

The nice thing, I suppose, is it's similar to the way people speak here. I guess for a very long time people have talked a lot about nationalism and who understands which music and who doesn't. But I do think music is much related to language and the way of stressing, the rhythmic qualities and the articulation, and with an orchestra like this, they talk with a dialect that other people love to copy because it's unlike anything else. It's very legato, very ill-defined, which sounds like a criticism, but it's not. It's a very soft, smooth way of speaking with the edges ironed out.

Can you be specific about what the players are doing technically that is different? Are they using different instruments?

It's not like in Vienna where they have different oboes, bassoons, and horns. You find what you do in other German orchestras - the horns and trumpets are slightly different than they are in the U.S. - but there is nothing particularly different about the instruments. It's purely a set of priorities and an aesthetic sense. The imagination of the sound is different. Not being a string player, I can't tell you exactly what they are doing, but there is a kind of density about the contact with the string. Some orchestras make quite a light, internally illuminated sound, and this is an orchestra in which there is a huge amount of contact between the bow and the string and a physical weight to the way they play.

With the end of the Eastern Bloc and its isolation, is there a danger of the ensemble losing this unique character?

I think it's bound to be an issue, yeah, and I think it's a tough question. All the wonderful things about the way orchestras have developed in the last years - I often think about the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Ormandy years and the Philadelphia Sound, which is something very special - but maybe today that is unrealistic.

I make no value judgments, but orchestras are all looking toward being chameleons, so we become the music we're playing rather than the music becoming us. It would be terribly sad if we lost regional variations and individuality and personality. There are still not so many foreigners in this orchestra, but yes, over time that will change. And I think one has to be realistic about it.

You guest-conduct quite a bit. In your experience are other orchestras losing their uniqueness?

I think it's something more of an issue here than anywhere else I've come across it. I don't think there's another group where it's so fragile.

Why did you choose the piece you're performing here, Brahms' "Ein deutsches Requiem"?

We're doing it first in New York, as part of White Light Festival, which has something to do with spirituality. It's not the easiest thing to tour around. It's an extraordinary piece, I suppose, even before you talk about the music, because it's such a misleading title and . . . because there was so much discomfort about it - to call a piece a requiem that quite demonstratively isn't a requiem. And that caused all sorts of worry.

Brahms said maybe he should have called it a human requiem. There are obvious references to the Day of Judgment, but there is nothing denominational about it, and the requiem is a Mass for the dead, and this piece is uniquely for those of us who are left behind. Requiems are for praying for the dead and terrifying the people alive with the fears of what will happen to them. But for those of us who have lost people important to us [the Brahms] is indeed comforting, and there is something very universal and beautiful about that message.

You've conducted in Philadelphia before, haven't you?

I came twice, once in the old Academy, and once at the Kimmel. I don't remember very much about the Kimmel, but I remember the Academy had this incredibly unforgiving acoustic, and I remember I couldn't believe how sensationally beautiful the orchestra played and how hard they had to work to make their sensational sound.

I did hear the orchestra recently, though, last year when they came to Carnegie Hall with Rattle and did Damnation of Faust. It was some of the most sophisticated orchestra playing I've ever heard, incredibly refined and beautiful and filled with so much character and personality.

What are some of the issues you encountered as a young conductor who broke onto the scene with quite a bit of splash?

I think it's weird. I'm 35 now and still going to be a young conductor for the next 20 to 30 years, but it's really weird to think back to what I was as a conductor 10 years ago. I met some of the great orchestras of the world when I was in my young 20s. I wish I could remember what it was like, and I wish everybody else could forget.

I think it is a hard thing as a very young conductor, this balance. I think the worst thing you can do as a very young conductor is you can make the mistake of ingratiating yourself and going along for the ride, and then you can make the mistake of doing your homework and working the orchestra hard.

For the first time in my life now - you know, I was watching [Roger] Federer at Wimbledon, and I can't think of anyone who has played more elegantly and technically assured. And he had this guy at his elbow watching everything he was doing, and I thought if these guys can have somebody like that. . . . [So] for the first time in my life I talked to a friend who is a teacher, who is seeing what's going on with my arm.

With all kinds of experience, I sit there and think there is still so much to think about and it's a really phenomenally difficult job. It sounds exaggerated, but man, it's difficult. At the age of 23 or 25 nothing prepares you for the fact that 12 years later you're still plowing through and discovering things that don't work.

Who is this coach?

His name is Mark Stringer. He was one of Bernstein's assistants. Simon Rattle recommended him. He's absolutely brilliant. I sent him a video clip - two minutes of some Brahms, and I got a 12-page e-mail back and said, "Oh my God," everything he said was like, "Oh God, yes." But it's wonderful and I've never felt more exhilarated.

With an instrumentalist, you play and you know it's you. But when you're conducting something, how do you know? Did this work because of me, or despite me?


Contact music critic Peter Dobrin at pdobrin@phillynews.com or 215-854-5611. Read his blog at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/artswatch/.