Tragic Joy with Maestro Jahja Ling

FINE Magazine Interviews Jahja Ling of the San Diego Symphony

Photos by San Diego Symphony

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The chime sounds just as you are taking your seat. The musicians are on stage warming up as the first violinist walks out to his seat; he plays a prefect note that the others add to until they are playing as one before he sits down, and then it’s time. The conductor enters and take his place in front of the orchestra and all eyes are on him. He picks up the baton with a couple of taps, followed by a swish of his arm and the music begins.

For the last 12 years, the man holding the baton for the San Diego Symphony has been Maestro Jahja Ling. Born in Jakarta, Ling is the only conductor of Chinese descent who holds a music director position with a major orchestra in the US and under his leadership. In 2013, Ling led The San Diego Symphony on its first international tour that included a sold-out performance at the famed Carnegie Hall in New York. Together, Ling and the Symphony have released eight new live recordings, the first recordings by The San Diego Symphony in over a decade. 

Ling began to play the piano at age four and studied at the Jakarta School of Music. At age 17, he won the Jakarta Piano Competition and one year later was awarded a Rockefeller grant to attend The Juilliard School, where he studied piano with Mieczysław Munz and conducted with John Nelson. After completing a master’s degree at Juilliard, he studied orchestral conducting at the Yale School of Music under Otto-Werner Mueller and received a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in 1985. He was also awarded an honorary doctorate by Wooster College in 1993. In the summer of 1980, Ling was granted the Leonard Bernstein Conducting Fellowship at Tanglewood, and two years later he was selected by Bernstein to be a Conducting Fellow at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute. 

As the 2015-16 season of The San Diego Symphony is coming to a close, I caught up to Maestro Ling while he was traveling and preparing for the final events of what has been a very exciting year so far.

Let me start, Maestro, by saying how much I appreciate your work and have enjoyed it many times over the last few years. We’re thankful you are here. You have put this orchestra on the map over the last twelve years and San Diego is now recognized as a world class Symphony.

Jahja Ling: It’s such a great pleasure to build an orchestra to the state it is now. I think they are doing absolutely fantastic. I think that is how it should be. I think it should be going further. The potential is amazing. 

I understand you’re in Cleveland right now. 

Right now, I am back to my former home. I am invested with the Cleveland Notre Dame Music.

And you have been with the Cleveland Notre Dame Music for over thirty years. 

We have been working together for thirty-two years. Thirty-two seasons. This is the 32nd season with an orchestra, conducting them. 

That must be one of the longest runs with an orchestra in history. 

That’s right

And when you’re not playing in here in San Diego, you are getting to play around the world with other world class symphonies? 

Right now I am doing a lot of things with education. That’s why I am doing this thing in Cleveland with the Cleveland Institute. Because I was just named the Distinguished Principal Guest Maccabee here... so I work with the orchestra institute, the orchestra, and the faculty together. I give master classes and seminars. I love to pass down the traditions that I inherited from some of the greatest musicians I learned from. You know, Leonard Bernstein was my teacher who taught me about Gustav Mahler.