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A figure of calm encouragement, Jahja Ling returns to conduct the Florida Orchestra

Jahja Ling was both a sideline coach and cheerleader for musicians of the Florida Orchestra, a man who would wring out every last ampere of dedication, then recharge their batteries with praise.

This weekend, another milestone in the orchestra’s 50th season, marks a sweet reunion of the orchestra and Ling. The music director from 1988 to 2002 saw the orchestra through some of its rockiest economic times while laying a foundation for growth.

He returns as guest conductor in the year’s first concert for Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 — the same piece that so impressed the orchestra’s board when he conducted it here 30 years ago. The 1987 performance amounted to an unofficial audition and led to Ling’s appointment as the orchestra’s second music director.

Reached by phone in San Diego, where he recently concluded a 13-year run as music director of the San Diego Symphony, Ling said he was looking forward to seeing familiar faces soon.

"Send my best to everybody in the community and say Happy Anniversary for the orchestra for me," Ling, 66, said. "The future will be even better."

It’s not like this orchestra, or any one in particular, made his reputation. Ling’s career as an international conductor was always growing — before, during and after his tenure here. At 66, Ling has conducted in every major orchestra hall in the world. He was a founding music director of the San Francisco Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra’s youth orchestras; a resident conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra from 1985 to 2002; a former competition-winning piano soloist; a protege of Leonard Bernstein and conductor of the Super World Orchestra in Tokyo, a kind of dream team created in 2001 from the world’s best musicians.

In short, Ling was always a big deal. But he became more so during his tenure in St. Petersburg, and his own success helped propel the orchestra to new heights.

He was born in Jakarta, Indonesia, to Chinese parents. He remembers being 3?1/2 and listening to a kindergarten teacher playing a piece on the family piano.

"I was so fascinated with the sound and the music in my ears," he said. "I remember the tune, the harmony and everything. So one day I got up and walked to the piano and played it."

He had never played the piano before.

"That’s how I started," Ling said. At every subsequent turn in a brilliant career, whenever Ling was ready, another teacher always appeared. At age 17, after winning a piano competition, he was awarded a scholarship to the Juilliard School. After earning a master’s degree, he went to the Yale School of Music, where he was taken under the wing of legendary teacher Otto-Werner Mueller and earned a doctorate.

While still a student, his 10-minute stint in conducting impressed Leonard Bernstein so much the master conductor became a longtime friend and mentor.

But it all stems back to that intuitive grasp he showed as a young child, before formal learning could define what music is or how it should be approached. When he found himself boring in on the finer points of communicating specific messages to different instruments, it was Bernstein who pulled him back.

"He said to me, ‘Look, you need to overcome that. You have to forget about the piece. You have to express the music. You have to live the music.’

"And that really stuck to my mind," Ling said. You know the score analytically. You know it in your brain, you know how the composer wanted it — of course, those are very important. But then, how you express it and how you feel it in your gut, in your soul — that is the same as when I was playing piano as a child."

At 37, he started the 1988-1989 season with the orchestra in the midst of financial difficulty. A detailed report commissioned for the orchestra’s 25th anniversary cited an emergency board meeting to deal with a "crisis situation." The board planned to approach "large banks, small banks, individuals, mayors (and) county commissions to for bailout, bonds or whatever they could secure," the report stated. "It was even suggested that Jahja Ling be promoted in the style of a political campaign."

While money problems continued to dog the orchestra during Ling’s first few years, there were hopeful signs. In 1991 at Tampa Stadium, the orchestra played the national anthem behind Whitney Houston at the Super Bowl, the first time an orchestra had performed the anthem at the contest. It lives on as a cultural treasure and a boost to the orchestra in royalties.

Ling championed the orchestra in a 1991 letter to the Florida Arts Council, which was considering placing the orchestra on probation due to financial instability.

"In spite of receiving irregular paychecks for the last six weeks, our musicians played Mahler’s symphony No. 6, one of the most difficult pieces in the entire symphonic repertoire, with great conviction and extraordinary artistry," Ling wrote. "They were, and continue to be, an inspiration to me, and are a primary reason for my continuing as the music director of this organization."

His own debut in 1993 conducting the New York Philharmonic also raised the orchestra’s profile, another step forward. A musical milestone came in 1996, when the orchestra played Mahler’s Symphony No. 9.

"People didn’t think we could do it," Ling said. He remembers the dedication, particularly of musicians who were unfamiliar with Mahler’s last work.

"Some of the musicians had never practiced the part," he said. "They would get up at 6 o’clock to practice before they took their children to school. I was so touched by that."

In the meantime, his own life was changing. In 1999, while guest conducting at the Chinese Community Church of New York, he met pianist Jessie Chang. His first wife had died three years earlier. A friendship turned into a romance, then a marriage.

Ling left the orchestra in 2002. In 2004 he took over as music director of the San Diego Symphony, a position he held until June. While this weekend’s Sibelius symphony bookends some momentous events in his life, the Beethoven is personally significant also if only because Jessie Chang is the solo pianist for the concert. Husband and wife have performed in many concert halls together.

"Of course there is a certain give and take," Ling said. "When she feels like she wants to play it this way and I try to express my opinion because of the European tradition that I learned, she would also listen to me. In the end, when she wants to play something I don’t say, ‘Oh, but you should play it this way.’ No. Because that is her individuality that is very special, that nobody else has. Of course I always share my opinion. But she has her own special gift from God, and I shouldn’t be imposing anything."

Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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A figure of calm encouragement, Jahja Ling returns to conduct the Florida Orchestra