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Jahja Ling and his pianist wife, Jessie Chang, delight with Sibelius and Beethoven

Former Florida Orchestra music director Jahja Ling returns to conduct Beethoven's Symphony No. 2 Jan. 5-7, 2017. Florida Orchestra.
Published Jan. 6, 2018

TAMPA — With a genial wave and a smile, the Florida Orchestra's second music director greeted a Tampa Bay audience, the kind he used to see over 14 seasons. By the time Jahja Ling left the area in 2002, the orchestra had more than found its footing. On Friday he conducted Jean Sibelius' Symphony No. 2, a piece of personal significance.

In the early 1980s, Ling conducted the San Francisco Symphony's youth orchestra in that symphony to enduring raves. In 1985 he debuted with the Cleveland Orchestra, again with the Sibelius No. 2, the start of a 30-year relationship. And in 1987, his mastery of the symphony brought out the best in a struggling Florida Orchestra that was looking for a new music director, a performance that led to his being hired the next year.

The musicians quickly stood and applauded when Ling took the podium, then settled down to play the Overture to Oberon by Carl Maria von Weber, a seminal figure in early German Romantic opera. Dominated by the strings, that racing interplay of dancelike rhythms with dramatic, even spiritual overtones, set the stage for what was to come.

The Sibelius took up the concert's second half, a 45-minute interval considered so sacred ushers had been instructed not to seat stragglers returning late from intermission. It is a complex, magnificent work, open to a wide range of interpretations including Finnish nationalism and a hymn to the soul's longing. (In a recent interview with the Times, Ling said he did not think "you can put it in one category or the other; it is a mixture of a lot of things," touching on folklore and the composer's sentimental feelings about his homeland, even its cold weather.)

The orchestra established its opening themes quickly, heavy on the bassoons and clarinet. A segmented structure ushered in the modern world the composer was entering in 1901, even as its urgent questioning tones hinted at the Romantic era he was leaving. Out of this nontraditional form emerges unpredictability and tension, an anaconda snatching an animal and dragging it underwater. The second movement begins with tympani and plucked bass strings before the undulation begins anew, this time with a full orchestra. Horns enter strategically, the pace picks up until lovely floating lines of trumpet and oboe solos briefly slow it down. The orchestra is fully engaged to its widest range of expression, as if balancing nuanced messages with a carnal, primitive need.

That intensity only increases through four movements, slowing down at one point to an audible, percussive heartbeat, then growing in new segments that somehow seem more connected, coming together as earlier themes re-emerge. Meanwhile Ling is turning dials in the air, he is drawing sine waves around his knees that turn into figure eights. At one moment, he begs the brass for more, as if holding ice cubes he is anxious to get rid of; the next he is a calm emcee, asking the oboe to say a few words. It is all exhausting to watch, and thrilling.

In between the von Weber and the Sibelius came Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1, a little gem that nicely offset the grandeur of the second half. Pianist Jessie Chang, the concert soloist and Ling's wife, coaxed and caressed every note out of countless exuberant runs. The only down note came in the nearly three-minute opening before the piano started, during which the orchestra sounded subdued to the point of introversion. It is more than possible to imagine a fuller, more assertive sound that in no way steals limelight from the soloist if that was a concern; these are, after all, the opening words of a musical thesis. Nonetheless it soon regained its form to complement Chang, who was magnificent throughout. Her timing is exquisite, so much so that you can hear the silences between her keystrokes, visible by their calibration and exact equivalence to the notes on either side. She sailed through an allegro, executing brisk passages with a masterful expression, braking proportionally as the orchestra grew around her like a gathering wave. She came to something close to a fermata, the pace neared a pause and the conductor turned his head to lock eyes.

She gave a slight nod, her husband brought down his baton, and she was off on another cascade.

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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