BWW Preview: San Diego's Ling Ends Tenure on High Note

By: May. 12, 2017
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Photo David Hartig

On May 26, 27 and 28, 2017, Jahja Ling will take his final bows as longtime Music Director of the San Diego Symphony. Ling's dedication in building the orchestra into a major symphonic force has won him many devotees, among both audiences and the orchestra's fine musicians.

The award-winning conductor enjoys a deservedly fine reputation on numerous levels: his innovative and creative programming, his proficiency in engaging players who have contributed valued expertise to the excellence of the orchestra's performances, and a canny proficiency in introducing music never before performed with the ensemble. He has contributed his own unique spirituality to the overall concept of each program. His legacy and vision will undoubtedly continue to have a profound influence upon the orchestra long after he gives his final downbeat.

Since taking over the ensemble during a post-bankruptcy transitional period, Ling has added 70 excellent new musicians, released 10 CD recordings, and has received enthusiastic receptions from the orchestra's first appearance at New York's Carnegie Hall and on a groundbreaking China Friendship Tour. The diverse composers whose pieces, too numerous to list, that Ling has premiered with SDS run the gamut from Bernstein to Schnittke, Bach to Mozart, Higdon, Sheng, Harbison and Glass.

Ling has a special predilection for the late Romantic symphonic composers. Recently he helmed the ensemble in a powerful performance of Mahler's monumental 3rd Symphony. He had waited until more than a decade of his tenure with San Diego Symphony had passed before programming Mahler's Symphony no. 7 in November, 2014. Though he had conducted this work elsewhere, his performance was the orchestra's first in its 103-year history. That was also the time that he announced his departure from the orchestra after a 14-year tenure (/san-diego/article/San-Diego-Symphony-Music-Director-Announces-His-Departure-20141121Carnegie Hall and on a groundbreaking China Friendship Tour.

Born in Jakarta, Indonesia, of Indonesian-Chinese parents, now a U.S. citizen, Ling is the first and only conductor of Chinese descent to become music director of a major U.S. orchestra, and has conducted every prominent symphony orchestra in North America. His enduring relationship with the Cleveland Orchestra, which he has been guest conducting for 33 seasons, is a mutually respectful, affectionate one.

Notwithstanding his ethnicity, Ling's musical background is steeped in European tradition. His history of studying with such conducting icons as Leonard Bernstein, Christoph von Dohnanyi and Kurt Masur, he says, has contributed "to all of the accomplishment of making music in the most profound way to move people's hearts."

Photo David Hartig

Ling enjoys instant recognition around his adopted hometown of San Diego, and the orchestra stands as one of the most important lynchpins of the city's cultural life. As the only member of the San Diego arts community chosen by the San Diego Tourism Authority to participate in its 2011 San Diego Ambassador Campaign, Maestro Ling likens the city to an orchestra of many diverse instruments put together.

"There are many facets of color that San Diego represents," he says. "We have great music, great culture, beautiful ocean and beaches, like an orchestra. A flute, which can represent joy... a cello's depth, combined with the very warm sound of the horn. People here are really eager to hear excellence in the arts, to be inspired with this great city."

Ling started playing piano at age four, won a Rockefeller grant to study at the prestigious Juilliard School, medaled at the Arthur Rubinstein International Competition, and then was awarded a Tanglewood fellowship to study conducting with Bernstein. Some of his more unusual undertakings include conducting at the state visit of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in San Francisco, and accompanying Whitney Houston's national anthem at Super Bowl XXV.

There is also a deeply personal musical theme in the maestro's life: the love story with his concert pianist wife, Jessie Chang, whom he married in 2001. Chang, who grew up in Taiwan and, like Maestro Ling, began to play piano at age four, has won a constellation of awards for her outstanding artistry and is known among her colleagues and teachers for her virtuosity, lovely tone, and unique, distinctive piano style. She was a graduate student in piano at the Manhattan School of Music in 1999 and sang in the choir at the Chinese Community Church of New York when she and the maestro met, and had previously greeted Ling at a Juilliard concert he was conducting.

"Because of our church's relationship with him, we got to go backstage and say hello, like a three-second greeting," says the soft-spoken Chang. "But it was a very memorable performance." Later on they got to know each other better when Ling directed the choir at the church, and eventually spoke on the phone everyday about music and religion.

Chang also impressed the maestro with her deep intellect and a sense of musical feeling that he found mesmerizing. As their romance burgeoned, she showed tireless devotion with her participation in his musical life, traveling with him and serving as an ambassador to his numerous public events, and, along with the couple's two brilliantly talented young girls, continues to be a shining presence in the maestro's personal and professional life.

"Without question Jahja Ling's legacy as Music Director of the San Diego Symphony will be felt for decades to come," says SDS CEO Martha Gilmer. "I speak on behalf of so many people - musicians and audience alike - to express our profound gratitude to Jahja Ling for his devotion to his role... and for creating so many magical musical moments in our lives."

Ling's final program with the orchestra will consist of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, performed by famed pianist Yefim Bronfman, along with one of Ling's signature pieces, the Sibelius Symphony No. 2.

A fitting finale and tribute to the man who has transformed the San Diego Symphony into one of the music world's most admired and esteemed ensembles.

Photo Brianna Houston

Jahja Ling's final performances as SDS Music Director take place at Copley Symphony Hall on May 26, 27 and 28 (

Photo credits: David Hartig, Brianna Houston


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