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Ling returns to local podiums

There have been big changes in Jahja Ling's life since the last time he conducted the Florida Orchestra. In April, he was named the next music director of the San Diego Symphony Orchestra. In July, he and his wife, pianist Jesse Chang, had a baby daughter, Priscilla.

"It's just amazing, wonderful," Ling, 51, said last week from his home in Cleveland. "When we had Gabriel and Daniel, I was just starting my career. I was very busy, running around, starting a youth orchestra in San Francisco. Now I have a little time to relax and spend time with her."

Priscilla, whose Chinese name is Ming-Ming, is Ling and Chang's first child. The conductor and his late first wife, Jane, had two sons, Gabriel, who graduates from Yale in the spring, and Daniel, a junior at Harvard.

Ling's wife and daughter are with him this week as he prepares for weekend concerts by the Florida Orchestra, for which he was music director for 14 years, stepping down in 2001. The program includes Webern's Im Sommerwind, Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade and Ravel's Piano Concerto in G, with soloist Orli Shaham.

Ling has a five-year contract to lead the San Diego orchestra, beginning next season. In October, he was in San Diego to hold auditions to start filling 25 positions in the 90-member orchestra, including as many as 10 principal players. More auditions are scheduled in January and February.

The San Diego Symphony Orchestra is in an enviable situation, having overcome bankruptcy and gained financial stability thanks to a $120-million pledge to its endowment from billionaire Irwin Jacobs and his wife, Joan. "It's a cushion," said Ling, who succeeded Jung-Ho Pak as music director. "We hope this is only a start. The orchestra wants to double the endowment to more than $200-million."

In December, the Lings will be moving into a house they bought in Bonita, south of San Diego (and safe from the wildfires that struck Southern California). It's a return to the West Coast for both. His first job after graduate school was as a staff conductor with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra; she grew up in the Los Angeles area.

Their house in Cleveland is on the market, though Ling still has ties there. He ended an 18-year run as resident conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra last year but continues as music director of the orchestra's summer Blossom Music Festival at least through 2005.

With a budget next season of $13-million, the San Diego Symphony Orchestra is nearly twice the size of the Florida Orchestra. It also has a crucial asset in the ownership of Copley Symphony Hall, where it plays concerts, rehearses and has offices.

Looking back on his time in the Tampa Bay area, Ling regrets he didn't make the case more forcefully to anchor the orchestra in a central hall, rather than shuttling among the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, Mahaffey Theater and Ruth Eckerd Hall.

"I should have insisted that we have one home hall from the beginning. I think that is one of the most critical things for an orchestra," he said.

Early in his tenure, when TBPAC had just opened, the orchestra played every concert in what is now Morsani Hall, the largest hall in the complex. Gradually, however, that position of primacy was eroded away, mainly by Broadway tours, and now the orchestra is often in too-small Ferguson Hall.

"If I made a mistake, it was to not insist enough that we stay in (Morsani)," Ling said.

This week the music director laureate and orchestra rehearsed their masterworks program in Tampa's Springs Theatre, a recording studio. Only Friday's dress rehearsal was scheduled in the Tampa venue where the concert is to be performed, Morsani.

"Now with the Florida Orchestra, you have difficulty finding a place to rehearse. That's a very, very difficult situation," Ling said.