(Editor's note: Sydney Chan is a senior at The Bishop's School. Sydney was a recipient of Scholarship for API Student Internship 2023 for API Student Journalism Internship. This is one of the three articles she wrote for the program)
The Chinese Cultural Center at San Diego State University held an exhibit about Maestro Jahja Ling’s incredible career from March 24 to August 13, 2023. From founding two youth orchestras to performing with Whitney Houston at the Super Bowl to becoming the first conductor of Chinese ancestry to hold the title of music director for a major U.S. orchestra, Maestro Ling’s journey to become a world-renowned conductor was incredible (Photo by Sydney Chan)
Dozens of posters and informational placards lined the pop-up walls and vibrant photos of symphony halls across the world flooded the room. From March 24 to August 13, 2023, the Chinese Cultural Center at San Diego State University (SDSU) held an exhibition for world renowned conductor Maestro Jahja Ling, honoring his celebrated work in the music world by selecting him to be the first to receive the Baton of the Six Arts.
“The Six Arts are six words that came from our great educator, Confucius,” said Dr. Lilly Cheng, a professor at SDSU and the Confucius Institute Director. “Confucius said a person needs to be holistic and well-rounded, with multiple areas of cultivation.”
Recognized globally for his unmatched success, Ling is a legend in the musical community, praised especially for his role as Music Director for the San Diego Symphony Orchestra from 2004-2017. He was the first conductor of Chinese ancestry to hold the title of music director for a major U.S. orchestra –– his journey to reach this incredible feat is nothing short of fascinating.
Ling was born and raised in Jakarta, Indonesia and was first introduced to the piano at around six years old. His house was used as a kindergarten school, and when he saw the teacher playing the instrument, he found himself “fascinated.” Ling studied diligently in Indonesia until his late teenage years and won many competitions in his youth, some of which led to further opportunities, such as when he received the John D. Rockefeller 3RD Scholarship and when a professor from The Juilliard School visited Bali and Maestro Ling performed for him.
He played a Greek piano concerto, and when he was done, the professor told Maestro Ling, “You belong at Julliard.” Ling had only five weeks to prepare for his audition, but after multiple master classes and an intensive month, he made it to New York City.
Ling’s education furthered when he went to study at Yale after undergrad and formally learned the magic of conducting; and later on, Leonard Bernstein –– the composer of West Side Story –– became Maestro Ling’s mentor.
“He taught me about developing my own musical style,”Ling said. “He whispered in my ear one day, ‘You will become a big conductor,’ and I almost fainted.”
Ling founded two youth orchestras during his career, starting with the San Francsico Symphony Youth Orchestra who played its first concert in January of 1982 and performed for Queen Elizabeth II of England a year later. In 1986, Ling founded the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra and stayed in Ohio for 38 years.
“I mentored and found people that are really talented and gave them more chances to develop [while forming those two youth symphonies],” Ling said.
One of the most unique parts of Maestro Ling’s career was performing the U.S. National Anthem with the Florida Orchestra at Super Bowl XXV in 1991 with singer Whitney Houston, considered by many to be the best rendition of the Anthem. Ling chuckled when thinking of the moment when he went to say hello to Houston, and she responded, “It is my honor, Maestro.”
However, after all of his amazing experiences as a pianist and later conductor, Ling said that it all comes back to his passion for working with youth.
“People say, ‘Oh, you work with young people when you could be conducting the greatest orchestra,’ but I love it because then you can build something,” he said. “Back in Cleveland or San Francisco, [some people come up and say], ‘I was a member of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra, which you founded, but I never met you. But you are still such a big influence on me.’”
Ling reflected on one of the greatest concerts he’s ever conducted: Mahler Symphony No. 5 with the Curtis Symphony Orchestra of the Curtis Institute of Music.
“They play from the heart. It’s the most amazing and touching experience that you will ever have,” he said.
Although he left his position as Music Director at the San Diego Symphony after the 2017 season, Ling continues to give back to the music community by going back to Indonesia every year and teaching master classes.