Maestro Ling Remembers His Most Soul-Stirring Performances

by Brie Stimson November 28, 2016


jahjaling1After 13 seasons, Maestro Jahja Ling is finishing his final season with the San Diego Symphony. The music director came to the Symphony in 2003 at a time of transition within the company –many musicians had left.

“Right now, about two-thirds of the orchestra came during my tenure here and I’m very proud of them because these musicians are the most talented, the most accomplished orchestra musicians that you can find in the world. And not only that, in the last 12 years I was able to mold them into an ensemble,” Ling says with pride as he looks back on his years with the Symphony.

“These people that we hire now, they can play together and create a specific sound quality,” he continues. “One of my colleagues [pianist] Lang Lang … said, ‘you know this orchestra has the special quality of combination of the best of … American sound plus the warmth of the sound of the European orchestra.”

Ling, who speaks fast and with the verve of a virtuoso, was brought up under the European tradition, where his teachers in Jakarta, Indonesia, had been trained, but after coming to the United States, he was mentored by American conductor Leonard Bernstein.

“[He] basically discovered me and acknowledged my talent and nurtured me in the beginning of my career,” Ling says. “He influenced me a lot … to live the music out, to speak to the audience to express to the fullest … the composer’s intention.”

Ling says the combination of European tradition and American style molded him into the musician and conductor he has been for the last 35 years.

“To be able to mold these musicians together and to really realize every composer – they have a different style – not only playing one kind of style or one kind of sound but to adapt to what the composers want,” he says.

Ling says in every concert he’s trying to find that magical moment where you can express that “one phrase that touch[es] and move[s] people’s soul.”

Though it predates his time in San Diego, Ling recalls a performance in Cleveland as one of the more soul-stirring performances of his career.

“Definitely Mahler [No.] 6 was one of them when I was with [the Cleveland Orchestra] in 1998 and 1997, in December when I did it. At that time my late wife was very ill … She was diagnosed with cancer and then we did this concert, which was very difficult because it’s a symphony called the ‘Tragic Symphony of Mahler’ and the orchestra poured their hearts out and that is probably one of the most memorable concerts,” he recalls. “And then two weeks before she passed away they played with me ‘Eroica,’ that’s also one of the highlights … I could almost not conduct the funeral march of … ‘Eroica’ because I know that the time was coming that my wife will pass. But then the orchestra played with such a heart-wrenching rendition and that kind of a moment is very difficult.”

Another moment he describes with the Cleveland Orchestra was a concert called “The Tribute and Remembrance of 9/11,” which he conducted just after the plane crash to raise money for the victims’ families. The concert was televised and everyone donated his or her services.

“We do it out of our love of country and for our fellow citizens. That was a special moment,” he tells the Jewish Journal. “I remember the rehearsal when I finished the Beethoven [No.] 5, which lifted the spirit up of all the tragedy, everybody in the orchestra was in tears.”

The concert ended up winning an Emmy.

In 1991, Ling was chosen as the first conductor of a symphony orchestra for the national anthem at the Super Bowl with Whitney Houston.

“I came from a country that I never dreamed that I could conduct the greatest orchestra in the world and suddenly I was standing there in front of so many crowds [conducting] the national anthem that we are so proud of,” he remembers.

Ling grew up in Jakarta, and at 18 won a Rockefeller Grant to study piano at Juilliard and eventually studied conducting at Yale.

“That is like something you would never, ever dream coming from Indonesia … Here I could succeed.”

Ling became an American citizen in 1980.

He says he was moved when he performed at a piano competition in Israel in 1977.

“People in Israel were so welcoming to me and when I played there, the whole hall in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, they were full of people that were sitting on even the stairs of the hall,” he remembers. “Music surpasses everything. It’s the universal language.”

He says after he leaves the San Diego Symphony, he plans to teach music and “pass on the tradition that I inherited from my great mentors.”

Maestro Jahja Ling’s Symphony Finale, part of this season’s Jacobs Masterworks Series, is not until May 26-28, but fans can begin planning now. Details are at The Symphony is conducting an ongoing search for his replacement. Α


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