About Jessie Chang & Jahja Ling of the San Diego Symphony
Jahja Ling Conductor San Diego Symphony
Jahja 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 was awarded a Tanglewood fellowship to study conducting with famed maestro Leonard Bernstein. He’s conducted at the state visit of the Queen of England and Prince of Edinburgh in San Francisco, and accompanied Whitney Houston’s national anthem at Super Bowl XXV.
It is no wonder San Diego Symphony Maestro Jahja Ling enjoys instant recognition around America’s finest city. The orchestra stands as one of the most important lynchpins of our 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 our 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 of sound, attractiveness, sexiness, combined with the horn, a very warm sound. People here are really eager to hear excellence in the arts, to be inspired with this great city.”
Born in Jakarta, Indonesia, of Indonesian-Chinese parents, now a U.S. citizen, Jahja 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. Like Bernstein, Ling often dances on the podium, embodying his avowed mission to inspire his musicians to “move people’s souls and people’s hearts” when they play. “San Diego is a great place for musicians. Here we have a world class orchestra, the best of the best.” They also make music with the likes of Joshua Bell, Emanuel Ax, Lang Lang and Yo Yo Ma.
This past season the orchestra received great acclaim for their first appearance at Carnegie Hall, and for their groundbreaking China Friendship Tour, where they performed in Shanghai, Beijing, and San Diego’s sister city of Yantai in Shandong province. “The reception from udiences there was fantastic,” the maestro declares.
But there also is 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. 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 relationship with him, we got to go backstage and say hello,” said the soft-spoken Chang. “Like a three-second greeting. 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.
Known among her colleagues and teachers for her virtuosity, lovely tone, and unique, distinctive piano style, 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.
When their courtship showed signs of developing into a lifetime commitment, she decided she wanted “a carriage and a helicopter” as part of their nuptials. “I wasn’t one of those girls who fantasize about how their wedding’s going to be,” said Chang. “I just thought I’d be living in New York City for a long time with my huge dog, and pursue my musical career. That was my dream.” “You loved New York,” the maestro said. “You also loved me,” he added, laughing. Chang also laughed. “But then we met and it just… happened. He was much older and already established. So the right thing was to incorporate into his life.”
On New Years Day, 2001, she rode a horse-drawn carriage to their wedding at the church. Musically and romantically, it was a dream wedding, topped only by the reception. After the ceremony a white 1956 Rolls Royce sped the couple to a motor yacht on the Hudson River. “There had been a big snowstorm, and they were afraid of getting her gown dirty,” Ling recalled. “The chauffeur lifted her up and carried her onto the yacht.” As the yacht sliced through the icy Hudson, several famous musical friends performed everything from intimate love songs to excerpts from grand operas, and on a Steinway the couple played four-hand piano pieces for the guests, among them Ling’s mentor, New York Philharmonic maestro Kurt Masur. Then the boat docked at the Chelsea helipad, and the newlyweds boarded a copter. As the bird climbed upward, Chang tossed her bouquet toward the crowd below. “Jahja’s best friend’s son caught it,” she said gleefully.
The couple’s relationship has melded their common interests and concepts most important to them: music, intellect, and religion. Awarded with top honors at major national and international competitions, and now with two young daughters to raise, Chang still manages to maintain her pianistic excellence. She has shown her sparkling musical touch performing as a soloist with her husband as conductor, where the two have exhibited a wonderful chemistry. Together as pianists they performed the Mozart Concerto for Two Pianos with the Florida Symphony conducted by Ling’s mentor Otto Werner-Mueller; and in March 2013, Chang and Ling continued their joint collaboration in Poulenc’s fiendishly difficult Concerto for Two Pianos with the San Diego Symphony. True to her nature, Chang approached Poulenc’s music both emotionally and intellectually, and was struck with Poulenc’s fascination with the Javanese Gamelan, which Ling was required to learn as part of his Indonesian musical upbringing. Despite the music’s dissonance and intricate jazz elements, Chang says, it was great fun for the two artists to perform together.
When she is not performing, the young mother of two can be seen in attendance at almost every concert her husband conducts at Copley Symphony Hall, regularly performs chamber music in and around San Diego with members of the orchestra, and teaches a large cluster of piano students. The Lings’ ten-year-old daughter Priscilla, under her mom’s tutelage, will make her solo debut with orchestra in a Bach piano concerto in Jakarta with her father on the podium. Does Chang have any fear when it comes to Priscilla’s performing? She laughed. “Oh, I have.” But, she adds, Priscilla, also a figure skater, “loves to perform.” As to how she manages to maintain her high standard of piano playing, raise two daughters, and teach twenty-three students, Chang replies simply, “God’s grace.”
Ling understands the importance of all this musical activity for his talented wife. He and Jessie form a great team, whether musically, intellectually, or romantically. Individually and together, these two lovebirds truly are two of San Diego’s finest cultural ambassadors; a match made in musical heaven, symbolizing the harmony of the ensemble that helps make our city great: the San Diego Symphony.