At Leonard Bernstein's 70th birthday celebration, composer William Schuman quipped that for a conductor 70, was "barely past adolescence." Undoubtedly, he would have been very impressed by two of the New York Philharmonic's guest conductors this season, both making their debuts with the Orchestra: Andris Nelsons, appearing February 10 _12, and Daniel Harding, who will conduct March 3 _5.
Both have forged major careers in Europe while still in their 30s and now hold prestigious directorships: Mr. Nelsons is music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra; Mr. Harding is the first-ever music director of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, principal guest conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, and music director of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. The two differ greatly both on and off the podium, but their backgrounds charted similar paths to success.
Born in Riga, Latvia, in 1978, Andris Nelsons started out as a trumpeter and singer but a "subconscious dream" after seeing his first opera (Wagner's Tannh‹user) revealed conducting to be his destiny. "Falling in love with opera so early," he says, "taught me to treat symphony as drama; thinking of a great work by Beethoven as an opera makes the tempi, the dynamic range, everything so clear." Mariss Jansons took the young man under his wing, making him look at music "both horizontally and vertically," as Mr. Nelsons puts it, bringing his attention to minute details and thinking of tradition as "a means of educating, not imitating : schooling one's own instincts, heart and mind."
Daniel Harding was born in Oxford, England, in 1975, and began musical life on the trumpet and violin. Articulate and easygoing, he looks back on the whirlwind beginning of his career and laughingly observes: "I've got a huge amount of experience behind me. How I'd love to keep the lessons I've learned but erase everyone's memories of how I came to learn them!" He was mentored by two great conductors: Sir Simon Rattle and Claudio Abbado. Sir Simon appointed Mr. Harding as his assistant at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and shortly thereafter Mr. Abbado appointed him assistant conductor at the Berlin Philharmonic. "They were incredibly different," the young conductor recalls of these two eminences. "Simon loves to analyze things: he looks at a technical problem and knows exactly what to do. His influence on me was massive." In contrast, he observes, "I'd never actually get Abbado to talk about conducting, but he'll talk about music forever and he communicates via his physical gestures and supremely elegant hands."
Both conductors made their professional debuts at the age of 21: Andris Nelsons, with the Latvian National Opera; Mr. Harding, with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, earning the Royal Philharmonic Society's "Best Debut" award. By 23 Mr. Nelsons was the music director at the Latvian company, where he remained until 2007. He has a thriving career with the major European orchestras and opera houses, has recorded an extensive discography, was the youngest conductor in the history of Bayreuth, and made his Metropolitan Opera debut last year conducting Puccini's Turandot. Daniel Harding's astonishingly impressive, diverse discography and engagements with Europe's great orchestras and opera companies have left him with a vast understanding of performance traditions.
Andris Nelsons is pensive, soulful, with a philosophical way of looking at life that is, he explains, "a result of having lived through the last stages of the Soviet Union, when music provided the greatest outlet for human expression." This may explain the decided emphasis on great Romantic works in his repertoire. "I love Romanticism," says Mr. Nelsons. "Music embodies the subjects of the human soul, but Romantic repertoire is where these subjects are most overtly expressed."
This penchant makes him particularly happy with the program in which he is making his Philharmonic debut: Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 and Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 with pianist Jonathan Biss as soloist. "People make so much of the political situation infl uencing Shostakovich's music," the conductor observes. "While a factor, it was his ingenious mind and amazing heart that gave rise to his fabulous works." Mr. Nelsons continues, "And Beethoven has infl uenced every composer who lived after him. I love playing his concerti because the orchestra is equal to the soloist, so you must make a conscious decision to support and connect one another's vision. I wish he had had access to today's larger orchestras: his pieces would be on the grandest scale imaginable!"
Daniel Harding's experiences with Europe's leading ensembles has left him with a sense of wonder at great orchestral legacies, making his New York Philharmonic debut an eagerly awaited milestone, especially in light of his program: Mahler's Symphony No. 4 with soprano Lisa Milne (as part of the Orchestra's season-spanning Focus on Mahler) and the Szymanowski Violin Concerto No. 1, with Concertmaster Glenn Dicterow as soloist. "The Philharmonic has an extraordinary legacy, and playing Mahler with them is thrilling : I've played these works with the European orchestras that have a direct line to Mahler, but this Orchestra has perhaps had the greatest connection." He elaborates: "It's a chance to get to know the Philharmonic on its own sacred ground."
"As for the Szymanowski," Mr. Harding continues, "the only thing you need to expect is pleasure. The music is extraordinarily exotic and sensual and yet behind it there is a fantastic discipline. It was Alan Gilbert, whom I know quite well from our two orchestras in Sweden, who suggested Glenn Dicterow as the soloist. To play this sensational concerto with a legend like Glenn, who embodies New York Philharmonic tradition : how could I say no to that!"
This passion and openness to new experience characterizes both of these dynamic presences on the podium. Now they are building on the strong foundations they have already made abroad, crossing the Atlantic and embracing the New York Philharmonic's history and depth of talent to make their debuts in this most international of cities.
Robin Tabachnik is a New York _based arts and culture journalist who writes frequently for Playbill, Town & Country, and IN New York magazine.