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Happy Birthday, San Diego Symphony!

Jahja Ling
San Diego Jewish Journal

By Pat Launer

It began in 1910 as a group of local musicians. It still is.

The San Diego Symphony has survived 100 years of renaming (first, the San Diego Civic Orchestra, then the San Diego Federal Symphony; later, a merger with the Philharmonic Orchestra of San Diego); artistic changes and challenges; financial problems; shutdowns; bankruptcy; and bailouts.

But now it’s back, stronger than ever, thanks to $120 million in grants and bequests from Joan and Irwin Jacobs in 2002, and the leadership of Jahja Ling, music director since 2003.

“It’s an exciting time for us,” says Ling, who has conducted some 250 concerts in San Diego in the past seven years. “I’m proud that I’ve been able to select the best players for our orchestra. People from all over the world have come to audition. I’ve hired 46 musicians since I arrived, more than half the orchestra.

“At that level of performance, everyone can play; they have the musicianship and technique. For me, what counts is personality; that’s what makes the difference. I’m proud of the people I chose. They blend together so well to make great music.”

But besides a group of excellent musicians, credit also goes to their conductor.

“People ask, ‘What’s the trademark of a great conductor?’,” says Ling, who has conducted the finest orchestras worldwide. “To be able to inspire musicians to play their best, and even beyond what they can do. That’s my daily goal.”

Ling seems to be meeting his goals. As of this year, with its budget of $19 million, the Symphony has returned to top-tier, “group one” status with the League of American Orchestras. That’s due, in no small part, to the largesse of Joan and Irwin Jacobs, who are honorary chairs of the centennial season.

“I wasn’t exposed to classical music much as a child,” admits Irwin Jacobs, “except in the film ‘Fantasia,’ which I made my mother take me to four times! New Bedford [Mass.], where I grew up, was 60 miles from Boston, but that was a big trip at the time. We occasionally went to hear the Boston Symphony.”

But as an adult living in San Diego, Irwin and his wife, Joan, made orchestra music a priority in their lives.

“From the time we arrived in San Diego in 1966, Joan and I were involved with the Symphony — attending, supporting, and I was on the board,” Irwin says. “They were always struggling. There was not enough community support, even in attendance. Then there was the bankruptcy [in 1996]. And one day, Joan said, ‘It’s never going to be a great symphony if every week they’re trying to meet payroll.’ And that was the beginning.”

Then came the Big Gift.

“I thought maybe it would help encourage audiences to come out and see why these crazy people gave so much money,” Irwin says with a smile. “It wasn’t just a lump sum, though, as some people think. Most of it is to be distributed in increments, over the course of 10 years.”

The Jacobs’ generosity had a powerful effect.

“It’s amazing how it has changed things,” he continues. “The Symphony has had a balanced budget ever since we became involved. They have a good executive director, Ward Gill, and a great leader in Jahja. I think we have a wonderful orchestra now, comparable to many of the best in the country, and perhaps the world.”

Irwin is enthusiastic about the centennial season, particularly the Jacobs Masterworks series, which focuses on classical music, his personal favorite. In the fall, there were performances by flutist James Galway and at the centennial gala, the incomparable cellist, Yo-Yo Ma.

“There are more outstanding soloists coming,” Irwin says. “I’m really looking forward to the fundraiser with Lang Lang, which will take place in our home.”

Ling, the Symphony’s conductor, is also enthusiastic about Lang’s visit.

“Lang Lang is the best-known pianist in the world right now,” Ling says. “It’s very rare what he’s doing here, three different concerts over three nights: piano concerti by Beethoven, Schumann and Tchaikovsky” (Jan. 14-16).

The Jacobs Masterworks will also present Scottish virtuoso percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie (April 8 and 10), “an amazing artist,” Ling says, “a little, petite lady who’s a tremendous percussionist.” Profoundly deaf since the age of 12, “she plays barefoot,” Ling says, “feeling the music by vibration.”

A January highlight is “Ax Plays Mozart,” featuring Emanuel Ax, widely considered one of the greatest pianists of the 21st century (Jan. 7-9). Like many of the guest artists this year, including Yo-Yo Ma, he’s an old friend of Ling’s.

“Manny Ax and I studied with the same teacher at Juilliard, the Polish-born Jewish pianist Mieczyslaw Munz,” says Ling, who still performs himself, and is married to accomplished concert pianist Jessie Chang. Ax is only one of Ling’s many Jewish connections.

“In 1977,” Ling recalls fondly, “I went to Israel for the Arthur Rubenstein Piano Competition. I was not a U.S. citizen at the time, and Israel didn’t have relations with Indonesia. But music overcame the boundaries of race, religion and language. I was warmly received, and I won the bronze medal, which was presented to me by former Prime Minister Golda Meir. I still keep it on the top shelf of my office.”

A pair of Jewish siblings also performs as part of the Jacobs Masterworks series this celebratory season: pianist Orli Shaham plays Grieg’s Piano Concerto (March 11-13), and her brother Gil Shaham is the violinist for the last concert of the centennial: Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (May 27-29).

(There are two sets of siblings in the orchestra as well: cellist Marcia Bookstein and violist Dorothy Zeavin (both of whom joined the Symphony in 1977); and violinist Jeff Zehngut (associate principal II) and violist Gareth Zehngut.)

Marvin Hamlisch, the principal Pops conductor, has lined up an impressive array of talent for the Pops this season, including fall appearances by Michael Bolton, Mannheim Steamroller and holiday concerts featuring Broadway heartthrob Brian Stokes Mitchell, performing with the San Diego Master Chorale and San Diego Children’s Choir; and a Salute to Vienna (Jan. 1). Coming up: Judy Garland in Concert (on jumbo video screen, Jan. 21-22), Tango Buenos Aires (Jan. 23), the Vienna Boys Choir (Feb. 4), and The Great American Songbook with Jane Monheit (Feb. 18-19).

Other special elements of the centennial season are the Chamber Music Series (new this year); the Symphony Exposed, presenting the stories behind the music and composer; and the Family Festival, intended as an introduction, particularly for children age 4 to 12, to “the beauty and fun of classical music.” Next up for kids is “Carnival of the Animals,” by Camille Saint-Saëns, Jan. 23.

“Music is a very important part of life, especially to young people,” says Ling, who founded youth orchestras in San Francisco and Cleveland. “We do a lot to develop and nurture the interest of the young. If you promote education, it makes an impact on the next generation. Last year, we played for more than 46,000 young people in schools and in our Young People’s Concerts,” an idea he borrowed from one of his mentors, Leonard Bernstein.

“Where I grew up, in Jakarta,” Ling explains, “I was exposed to classical music from a very young age [he started playing piano at age 4]. Also in Europe, music was not just considered entertainment; in every little village, there was an orchestra. It was part of life. Here, it’s not part of the tradition. People here have so many activities to choose from. There are so many wonderful cultural institutions: the Opera, the theater, Mainly Mozart — and the most beautiful beaches.

Part of the problem, he says, is the perception that his kind of music is high brow and intended only for society’s most powerful and wealthy.

“People tend to believe that orchestral music is elitist,” he explains. “But they need to know that music is part of their culture, is relevant to them. We have to get people to understand that if there’s no orchestra, the heart will be empty. People are nurtured by the great history of music; it touches their soul.”

Ling’s hard work as the Symphony’s conductor seems to have paid off. Under his leadership, audience attendance has consistently increased, and the orchestra has reached a new level of financial stability.

Performances conducted by Ling have received high praise from the public and critics alike and have been broadcast locally and nationally. Ling has encouraged and conducted commissions and world premieres. For the first time in a decade, the Symphony released four new live recordings. And in 2006, the U.S. House of Representatives presented a Congressional Record of Ling’s outstanding achievements.

Now, the question at the back of everyone’s mind is: Will he stay in San Diego to fulfill his dream of taking our orchestra to the top tier?

“As long as I can still bring something to this community and this orchestra,” he avows, “I’ll be here. I love the city, and I love the musicians. Every time I stand on the podium, I want to feel I have something to say, and if I can still bring excitement and nuance, and move people’s hearts and souls, I’ll stay.”

In the meantime, he has a centennial celebration to oversee, and the committed support of donors like the Jacobs family to thank.

“A great city needs a great cultural life,” Ling asserts. “That message needs constant nurturing. Look what the Jacobs have done: their care and love and generosity. People should follow their lead, to ensure the next 100 years, so the tradition goes on.”