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Orchestra to lose longtime leader

"It's time,'' Jahja Ling, 48, says in announcing that he will be leaving after 14 years, at the end of the 2001-02 season.

[Times file photo]
"I didn't decide to leave because I have another job," Ling said, speaking from New York.

By JOHN FLEMING

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 24, 2000


TAMPA -- The Florida Orchestra's Jahja Ling era is coming to an end.

On Thursday, orchestra officials announced that Ling had renewed his contract as music director for the next two seasons but will step down after the 2001-02 season.

"It's time for me to leave," said Ling, who told executive director Leonard Stone and chairman Ray Murray of his decision on March 13. The board of trustees and musicians were informed Thursday.

"I didn't decide to leave because I have another job," Ling said, speaking from New York. "I might have an offer in the future, but I'm starting to make the transition now because it's a good time for it to happen. I believe the orchestra is in the best shape it's ever been, and I have a good feeling that I made a difference there."

Ling, 48, will have been music director for 14 years when he steps down. During that time -- a long tenure, in this age of ambitious, jet-set conductors -- he stuck with the orchestra during some very hard financial times.

"No one could have given more to this position than Jahja," Murray said.

In its 32 seasons, the Florida Orchestra has had only two music directors. Irwin Hoffman, the first, held the post for almost 20 years. Prior to Ling's arrival, the late Robert Shaw was interim artistic adviser to the orchestra.

The choice of music director is fraught with complexity, and not just for the orchestra.

"Of course you want to find the best musician around," said Donald Thulean, a retired executive of the American Symphony Orchestra League who advised many orchestras in music director searches.

"But it's really a community leadership role. In many ways, the symphony's music director sets the artistic tone for the community. He needs to have an artistic vision for the community, and he needs to be able to articulate that vision not only to the orchestra, but to other people who may not be much involved with the orchestra."

It's possible the next music director will be called upon to mobilize support for construction of a new concert hall. The orchestra now divides performances and rehearsals among Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center in Tampa and Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, and must compete for dates with other attractions, often to its disadvantage. Most observers believe the orchestra must have some kind of permanent home to move up to the next level of cultural importance.

Ling, who is paid an estimated $225,000 a year by the Florida Orchestra, is also resident conductor of the world-renowned Cleveland Orchestra and music director of the National Symphony Orchestra of Taiwan. This summer, he begins his tenure as director of the Blossom Festival, summer home of the Cleveland Orchestra. He is frequently mentioned as a candidate for major orchestras looking for music directors, such as the Indianapolis Symphony and the Houston Symphony.

Florida Orchestra officials have not yet decided how to proceed in searching for a new music director. The process will include trustees, musicians and staff members. "We'll go about it with unity and balance," Murray said.

The orchestra also has an opening for pops music director, with Skitch Henderson stepping down this season.

Stone, who assumed the executive directorship in February, has been in charge of four other orchestras when they undertook music director searches. The most recent was several years ago when he ran the Calgary Philharmonic and it chose Hans Graf as music director.

"It is such an important decision," Stone said. "The orchestra needs to make a decision it can live with for a long time. It's got to be the right, inspired decision, but it also has to be one with legs."

Ling is contracted to conduct eight of the 15 masterworks programs next season and seven programs in his final season. He will assume the title conductor laureate for an additional three seasons and probably be a guest conductor from time to time.

The orchestra will seek guest conductors who are candidates to determine how they work with the musicians and appeal to the audience. Next season's lineup of guest conductors is already booked, so the candidates are most likely to be on the podium in the 2001-02 season.

Stone declined to name any likely candidates. One conductor sure to come up in speculation is the popular resident conductor, Thomas Wilkins. However, it is rare for resident conductors to step up to music director.

"Tom will certainly be part of this process in some way," Murray said. "We'll listen to him. He's got a lot of wisdom."

The Florida Orchestra is not a major orchestra -- that category, at a minimum, includes a year-round contract for musicians. The contract here is 36 weeks. Still, the orchestra'sexcellent artistic reputation is likely to attract plenty of strong candidates.

"I think the community should know it has a treasure in that orchestra," Ling said.

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