Review: Maestro Ling Bids Farewell in Moving Final Performance as Music Director of San Diego Symphony

By: May. 28, 2017
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The San Diego symphony declared bankruptcy in 1996 and was still inactive when my wife and I relocated from Detroit the following year. Concerts resumed in 1998. After attending a few of them, I was sorry they had. I cringed in my seat when a horn solo loomed, knowing it would likely lead to misfortune. The reorganized band lost badly in a comparison with the Detroit Symphony under Neeme Järvi.

The improvement during Jahja Ling's 13-year tenure as conductor and music director has been extraordinary. Friday's performance of the last program before his retirement confirmed that with an exclamation point. The concert began with the memorable opening of the Brahms second piano concerto, a solo for French horn. But rather than cringing anxiously, I had confidently anticipated that First Chair Benjamin Jaber, one of the 14 principals chosen for the orchestra under Maestro Ling's leadership, would play the striking melody beautifully. And he did. Thanks largely to Ling, the San Diego Symphony's sound and precision now impress rather than disappoint. Even minor flaws in execution, the notoriously cranky French horn's missed note or a less than perfect unison entrance, are rare.

A formidable network of music-business friends and acquaintances contributed to Ling's success. A graduate of Julliard himself, his contacts there, and at other outstanding conservatories, have facilitated an influx of some of the nation's finest young musicians. Forty-five of his selections are on the orchestra's current roster

Friendships have also led to an impressive parade of guest soloists such as Lang Lang, Gil Shaham and YoYo Ma. Pianist Yefim Bronfman, a friend for 40 years, has made multiple appearances with the orchestra and was engaged to perform in Ling's last program as music director.

Although Ling has led his share of contemporary world premieres, he doesn't hide his love for the traditional repertoire. His interpretations are mainstream. Motivated by the composer's intent rather than an ego-satisfying search for novelty, they simply show his affection and admiration for Beethoven, Brahms and Sibelius.

In a 2016 interview by Beth Wood, Ling said this about his 2017 concerts, "I chose pieces I feel very deeply in my heart ... I want my last season to show my love for the people." That love of the music and his audience drove his interpretation of the Brahms concerto and, after intermission, Sibelius's second symphony. Always a vigorous leader, he seemed especially uninhibited, virtually dancing on the podium, strong emotions evident in facial expressions. Those emotions surely included pride in the orchestra he has built.

Bronfman gave a powerful two-fisted performance of the concerto. Ling, himself a fine pianist, always works well with soloists, placing the orchestra in the spotlight only when it should be. The performance brought an enthusiastic response, one that became even louder as Bronfman and Ling congratulated Principle Cello Yao Zhao, who was flawless in the slow movement's gorgeous cello and piano duet. When Ling acknowledged Jaber, the response was equally enthusiastic.

"I'll end the program with Sibelius's Symphony No. 2, which I conducted in my debut with Cleveland, with Leipzig Gewandhaus, and with other orchestras around the world. It's a piece that's very close to me, so with that I will conclude my tenure as music director here," Maestro Ling said in a recent San Diego Magazine interview.

He conducted the symphony without a score, and his skill at building powerful crescendos worked to thrilling effect in its brass-heavy climaxes. After the last notes an elated audience jumped to its feet to honor the performance -- and 13 years of inspiring leadership.

Jahja Ling will be returning in future years for two concerts each season as the Symphony's first Conductor Laureate.

Several guest conductors have made a favorable impression on the search committee responsible for finding Ling's replacement, and more will be auditioning. There is no doubt the orchestra can cope with the preferences of any of them. Mirga Gražinyt?-Tyla gave an electrifying performance of The Right of Spring here last year. Charles Dutoit's Petrouchka had a similar effect just a week ago. But Jahja Ling's dedication and passion will be hard to duplicate.

I spoke briefly with Symphony CEO Martha Gilmer about that. The search for his replacement has been in progress for over a year and will continue for one more. When I expressed doubt that, given budget constraints, further improvement will be possible, she said the orchestra molded by Ling, with more experience and the right music director, can rise yet another notch on the list of the country's best.


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