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Orchestrated moves

Jahja Ling, the former music director of the Florida Orchestra, has been able to hire some of the country's top musicians in his first season leading the resurgent San Diego Symphony.

By JOHN FLEMING, Times Performing Arts Critic
Published April 2, 2005

On the phone, Jahja Ling was raving about sunny San Diego. Temperatures in the 60s, low humidity. From his hillside home in suburban Bonita, Ling can, on a clear day, see the Pacific Ocean. It's just a 20-minute drive to Copley Symphony Hall, where he is in his first season as music director of the San Diego Symphony.

The weather, at least, does seem like a far cry from Ling's previous musical homes. He endured long winters in northern Ohio, where he was resident conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra for 20 years. He dealt with stifling heat in the Tampa Bay area, where he was music director of the Florida Orchestra for 14 years.

Ling returns this weekend for performances with his longtime orchestra in Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony, The Hebrides Overture of Mendelssohn and Grieg's Piano Concerto, with soloist Arnaldo Cohen.

"It's always a homecoming for me," Ling said. "The same in Cleveland and Florida. I stayed long with them both. We have a very special relationship."

Ling, 53, appears to be off to a good start in San Diego, where the orchestra is on the upswing after some hard times in the 1990s when it went bankrupt and shut down for two years. In 2002, the orchestra was put on sound financial footing when telecommunications tycoon Irwin Jacobs and his wife, Joan, gave $100-million to the endowment fund, with another $20-million over 10 years for operations.

"The San Diego Symphony is ready, under Ling, to go places," Los Angeles Times music critic Mark Swed wrote in February, reviewing a concert that included Ives' Second Symphony. "I hope it throws fiscal caution to the wind and spends its millions on hiring the best players and splurging on rehearsal time."

Ling has hired his share of players in the past year, including concertmaster Jeff Thayer, former assistant concertmaster of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. San Diego had eight new principals at the beginning of the season.

"I hired all the string principals," Ling said. "I hired principal winds. Principal percussion. Next year we'll hire a third horn, principal trombone."

Several of the hires would be familiar to Florida Orchestra concertgoers. San Diego's new principal flute is Demarre McGill, who had the same position here. The principal cello is Daniel Lee, a soloist in Florida under Ling. Che-Yen (Brian) Chen, San Diego's principal viola, occupied that chair here for a year.

"For me it's a blessing" to have so many openings to fill, Ling said. "In Cleveland and Florida, I've done so many auditions. I've conducted all the major orchestras in the United States, and most people know me. I had 300 people apply for the principal flute position."

This year, Ling will step down as director of the Cleveland Orchestra's summer home, the Blossom Festival. "I think it's time to move on," he said.

The changes in Ling's life extend to his family. He and his wife, pianist Jesse Chang, have a 20-month-old daughter, and they're expecting a second child this month. Jesse's family lives in relatively nearby Pomona, Calif. Ling's two sons from his first marriage both live in the Boston area. Gabriel, graduated last year from Yale, is working for a venture capital firm. Daniel graduates from Harvard in June and plans to go to medical school.

His first season in San Diego has included highlights such as the Verdi Requiem, Emanuel Ax as the soloist in Chopin's Second Piano Concerto and Cleveland concertmaster William Preucil in Bruch's Scottish Fantasy. "I'm very pleased with the progress, the orchestra's spirit," Ling said.

Naturally he has gotten to know San Diego's symphonic benefactors. The Jacobses are "the most down-to-earth people," he said. "Very smart. They even built a concert hall in their home, a recital hall that seats about 200. Jesse played a Brahms sonata with Bill Preucil there. It's so wonderful that they don't just give money but really care about the orchestra."

Among other acts of largess, the couple purchased a multimillion-dollar Stradivarius violin for the San Diego concertmaster to play.

There was more good musical news in San Diego in January, when the symphony and San Diego Opera announced an agreement to cooperate. The opera will hire its musicians from the symphony, giving them guaranteed additional weeks of high-quality work.

All these positive developments in San Diego stand in contrast to Ling's experience as music director of the Florida Orchestra, which struggled to stay alive during much of his tenure and continues to have a shaky position.

This weekend, for example, the orchestra had to cancel its usual Saturday night masterworks concert at Mahaffey Theater, deciding it would be foolhardy to try to compete with the Honda Grand Prix on the streets of St. Petersburg. The auto race was announced after the orchestra had made its bookings at the theater for the season.

Nevertheless, Ling, who also conducts the orchestra April 16 to 18, had nothing but good things to say about being back on the podium here. "It's like I never left. I'm so looking forward to it."

PREVIEW: The Florida Orchestra, Jahja Ling conducting, plays at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Ruth Eckerd Hall and 7:30 p.m. Monday at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. $15.50-$50.50. 813 286-2403 or toll-free 1-800-662-7286; www.floridaorchestra.org

John Fleming can be reached at 727 893-8716 or fleming@sptimes.com

[Last modified April 1, 2005, 12:23:06]


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