VERBIER Switzerland (Reuters) - British conductor Daniel Harding was an assistant to Simon Rattle before he was 20 and became the youngest person ever to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic, but says he has paid a price for being "an obnoxious 22-year-old".
Harding, now 38 and principal conductor of the Stockholm Radio Symphony Orchestra, was touted as "the next Simon Rattle" early on his career before enduring his fair share of mistakes and criticism, something he now sees as no bad thing at all.
"For me, until I was 30 I suppose everything was so easy and then at some point you realize it's not and at some point you're not protected because you're ... not a kid anymore," Oxford-born Harding told Reuters.
"I think conducting is the ultimate kind of long game and it's of no consequence when you're a young conductor ... it's about becoming a proper and useful and contributing musician at the age of 60," he said during an interview at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland.
The Alpine ski resort turns into a music festival for three weeks each summer and Harding was there to conduct the mostly youthful Verbier Festival Orchestra in a concert performance of pieces from operas by Puccini and Verdi.
That, and serving as the director of the festival's music camp, are roles he takes extremely seriously, seeing himself as a guide for young musicians starting out on a career path much like his own, two decades ago.
"It's about taking brilliantly talented kids and about setting them up the right way as early as possible ... so they develop all the right habits and have all the right questions in their minds," he said following an intense rehearsal.
Harding's own initially fast-tracked career took him to Berlin, La Scala and the opera festival at Aix-en-Provence in the south of France - perhaps all a bit too soon, he says.
"It's a kind of slight disadvantage because the musical world is always looking for who's the new thing, who's the new conductor and I suppose I had that attention when I was a very excitable, immature young man," Harding said.
"And I look at my colleagues because now there are so many of us, of our generation, and I'm jealous of those who started later and have their great moment in the sun when they're kind of grown up.
"I'm always going to be paying for the impression I created as an obnoxious 22-year-old."
There are some moments in his past he finds particularly embarrassing, such as a recording of Mozart's "Don Giovanni" in his early 20s. The piece is infamous for its fast and sometimes erratic tempos and Harding now realizes he was too young to tackle it.
"I made a million mistakes but they were my mistakes and so I'm quite proud of how brave I was, even if I kind of wish it would disappear from the catalog," he said.
Savage criticism of the recording coincided with the break-up of his marriage, to an ex-musician.
"It was coincident with the moment when I started to have lots of questions about my conducting - but if you're going to have these things, have them all at the same time," he said.
The way Harding sees it, that time in the wilderness is something all conductors must experience if they are to become mature musicians who have something important to say in their 60s.
He is delighted, he says, to be principal conductor of the Stockholm Radio Symphony Orchestra, where he says he has a superb rapport with the musicians. And he still has conducting engagements around the world, but it is an older and wiser Daniel Harding on the podium.
"Suddenly the expectations are different and the bad habits you've developed because everyone's been nice to you and you've been the golden boy, they catch up with you.
"And it's the most wonderful moment because it's incredibly unsettling and at some point you say, 'Okay, all the criticisms I get, all the mistakes I've made, they're the road map to becoming good'."
Editing by Susan Fenton