Thirty years ago, the conductor Simon Rattle received a letter. It was from a teacher at Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester, England, telling Mr. Rattle about an extraordinarily talented teenage maestro there named Daniel Harding.
“Chetham’s is set up for extremely gifted instrumentalists,” Mr. Rattle said in an interview. “And they had no idea what to do about a young conductor.”
So Mr. Rattle, then the hotshot 30-something leader of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, took Mr. Harding under his wing. Mr. Harding eventually became an assistant in Birmingham and even lodged with the Rattles, who would feed him ham sandwiches, which were more or less all he ate at the time.
“He doesn’t look very old now, but at age 16 or 17 he really looked 11,” Mr. Rattle said, describing Mr. Harding’s first time in front of the ensemble, rehearsing Hans Werner Henze’s daunting Seventh Symphony. “I think the orchestra thought I was playing an April Fools’ game on them. And when this 11-year-old look-alike conducted the whole movement flawlessly, including wordlessly correcting some mistakes, the orchestra was completely flabbergasted.”
The decades since have been, in many ways, good to Mr. Harding, now 43, who will lead the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam at Carnegie Hall on Thursday and Friday. He is principal conductor of the respected Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and has served stints as principal guest of the London Symphony Orchestra and principal conductor of the Orchestre de Paris, from which he departed last year with a letter of notably graceful candor.
Mr. Harding is a regular on the podiums of Europe’s leading orchestras, including in Vienna and Berlin. He took over the Concertgebouw’s American tour after the firing of its chief conductor, Daniele Gatti, amid sexual misconduct accusations; the prestigious assignment placed him in the midst of the much-watched competition to replace Mr. Gatti.
“It’s a big badge of approval that they’re having him do this tour,” said Alan Gilbert, a friend who, until 2017, led the New York Philharmonic, adding, “He’s a brilliant musician, and really, really knows what he’s doing, in an enormous range of repertoire.”
But America has proved a tougher nut to crack. “I haven’t found in the U.S. — I haven’t found my place, so to speak,” Mr. Harding said in a phone interview.
When he was starting his career early in the 2000s, he did a circuit of major ensembles here: Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta. The results were mixed, to say the least. While some concerts were solid, there were frustrations between him and the musicians — mutual incomprehension, some stormy scenes.
“I came and did the rounds when I was a really young conductor,” said Mr. Harding. “And my experiences in Europe were quite protected. I knew people quite well. I think I just wasn’t ready for how some of the big U.S. orchestras worked, and how they would relate to me.”
“I look back on some of the great orchestras here,” he added. “For example, Chicago. I can see exactly why that didn’t quite click.”
He described the problem by recalling the composer and conductor André Previn, who watched Mr. Harding rehearse Strauss at Tanglewood one summer. “I have no idea what you’re doing,” Mr. Previn told Mr. Harding. “Why are you talking so much?”
Especially when Mr. Harding was younger — and looked younger still — this flood of explanation and analysis came across as the cockiness of an immature know-it-all.
“I love to talk,” he said. “I love to share with an orchestra why I want something to be a certain way. Does a conductor play an orchestra like a piano, manipulating without saying a word? For me, I was taught that’s almost disrespectful. So I come and just talk, talk, talk, and that’s just not how it works here.”
Mr. Harding, for his part, believes he has matured in recent years. “I think that I’ve been learning — these are things that take a lifetime to learn — how to enjoy what’s different about each situation,” he said. “Instead of ‘I wish this were like this.’”
A few years ago, wanting to work on technique and communication, he hired Mark Stringer, a onetime protégé of Leonard Bernstein, as a coach. And he has been dipping his toe back in the United States, though the jury is still out. He made his debut with the San Francisco Symphony last year in a program of Beethoven and Strauss; it got so-so notices.
“Harding seemed to have something specific and urgent to say about each individual measure,” Joshua Kosman wrote in his review in the San Francisco Chronicle, “which made for a lot of trees and not much forest.”
Mr. Harding was supposed to return to San Francisco later this month but canceled on Feb. 8, citing an injury.
He is scheduled to return to the New York Philharmonic next season, for the first time since 2011. Deborah Borda, who presented Mr. Harding at the Los Angeles Philharmonic and is now president and chief executive in New York, said: “Young conductors, when they make these lightning rounds of the major orchestras — New York, Boston, Chicago, Philly, L.A. — it’s almost unfair, to put that much pressure on them at that time. And sometimes what you need is a little break — not to learn repertoire, but to practice. And then they come back.”
Decades after making him ham sandwiches, Mr. Rattle is still in Mr. Harding’s corner. “These last five years have been, I think, a complete other thing to Daniel,” he said, adding: “I’ve seen a quantum leap in what he can do. He was always full of music, but he can now really make it work. With any of the greatest orchestras in the world.”