Notes – back to archive

Here’s an email from Jahja to a subscriber regarding his performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

Regarding Beethoven 5th Symphony, I am sorry if it disappointed you regarding the speed/tempos that I took were faster than you are accustomed to. I just want to let you know that I was not in the hurry to get it done because there is no pieces in the world which I revere with utmost admiration more than this piece. I have done this piece with some of world’s great orchestras including Cleveland (which I was asked to do at the Television Broadcast of the 9/11 concert of Tribute and won an Emmy Award), and Berlin Rundfunk Symphony in Berlin(where the Berliners think that they own Beethoven) at the Konzerthaus.

Whenever I conducted this piece in other places, most critics and audience appreciated the tempos which I took and I have had great successes in those places.

On Saturday’s performance and all other nights my tempos were consistently as follows:

First movement: Beethoven wrote metronome 108 per bar, my tempo on Saturday night concert here was 94 to 98 per bar(which was about 10 points slower than Beethoven)

Second movement: Beethoven wrote 92 per beat, my tempo was 84 per beat

Third movement: Scherzo, Beethoven wrote 96 per bar, my tempo was between 88 to 92 per bar (it fluctuates more because of some transitions and fermata)

In the trio with cello and bass I even slowed down a bit to 78-80 per bar so we can maintain clarity and articulation.

Finale: Beethoven wrote 84 per beat, my tempo was between 80-82.

All of these tempo were verified from the CDs which we recorded at every concert and today I checked them against at least two metronomes and my tempos were all close to what Beethoven wrote but never faster.

As much as I owed my career to Lenny Bernstein who was my teacher and mentor, I had to disagree with him if in fact he did it much slower and contrary to what Beethoven wrote (I never heard his Beethoven Fifth live so I could not comment). However, I have attended live concert of the Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan conducting this Symphony and the Pastoral Symphony in one program in 1983. When Karajan recorded this piece for the first time in the 60’s, his tempo was slower than when he recorded in 1978 as well as his live performances when he was older because he restudied this piece again and found what Beethoven wished and indicated in tempo marking of our score. I never attended any Beethoven symphonies performance more profound that those of Berliners with Karajan. At that time I felt that Beethoven must have been present in that concert and my hair behind my neck have risen as if I have been my whole being was lifted up. That was certainly the greatest or the most moving Beethoven concert I have ever attended in my lifetime. Later when I was resident conductor of The Cleveland Orchestra, the only time that Sir George Solti ever guest conducted The Cleveland Orchestra was this symphony(which included Bartok Concerto for Orchestra in the program) when he was 82 years old. He told the press and the orchestra that he changed completely his understanding Beethoven when he got older and tried to be as close to Beethoven tempo marking. He used to do it slow like everyone else but changed his mind after further studying Beethoven, his life and his letters. I was at his suite helping Lady Solti to install a modem in her computer before his first concert with the Orchestra when I heard Sir George was practicing at his bedroom with his metronome clicking getting the the first movement tempo of the 5th Symphony. I was so touched and moved that one of the greatest conductors in our live time still studying the score using the right metronome tempo before he conducts that evening with Cleveland Orchestra even he was already 82 years old and had conducted that piece hundred of times with all the greatest orchestras including Chicago, Vienna, Berlin, London etc. Christoph von Dohnanyi, former music director of Cleveland Orchestra, Hamburg NDR Symphony and Philharmonia of London also shared Solti’s view in Beethoven symphonies tempo. I was present when he conducted this piece at Carnegie Hall (even faster and closer to Beethoven’s tempo marking than mine last week) and the performance was so electrifying and filled that great hall with such tension that it made the audience jumped up and roared at the end of the performance. These Cleveland and Berlin performances were a revelation to me. Toscanini also conducted all of the symphonies according to Beethoven tempo marking.

My teacher, Otto Werner Mueller, who studied composition and score analysis under Richard Strauss and played trumpet under Strauss conducting in the Frankfurt opera, told me that when he grew up, most of the German conductors were influenced by German romanticism and played Beethoven much slower than the composer’s indication because they were influenced by Wagner. He said when someone argued that Beethoven metronome markings were too fast, but why that in certain movement we did exactly what he wrote but not the other movements. Many conductors did certain movement close to Beethoven wrote but not others because of their feeling of the need to interpret it that way but they are not consistent. Kurt Masur, who is my long time mentor, was music director of Leipzig Gewandhaus(the second oldest orchestra in the world) from 1970-1995 and NY Philharmonic from 1990-2002 also told me that Mendelssohn pieces never meant to be played so slow like most recordings in the past century because Mendelssohn himself directed the Gewandhaus Orchestra as their first music director and he wanted them to play the speed which he wrote (the orchestra has kept the tradition since) so if you hear recording of Masur conducting Mendelssohn, it would be different speed than you may used to.

When I made my debut with the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fischer Hall conducting Schubert Symphony No.9, the most important thing that Bernard Holland wrote in his review at the NY Times was: “Good interpretation begins with correct tempos, and Mr. Ling puts his fingers at the right ones.” (See attached file). Most of the conductors in 20th century also conducted Schubert too slow while in the original edition, Schubert wrote the first movement in Alla Breve which is in cut time. If you read the review excerpts of the major critics in the major cities in the US(attached), they often commented on my tempos because it relates whether the performances can make an impact both intellectually and emotionally.

I hope you can understand that because I was trained in one of toughest university’s music school in this country, Yale and before I could earn my Doctor of Musical Arts there, I had to study score analysis, history, the facts, instructions, letters and even facsimile/manuscript(when available) of the composers before I could graduate and that I have to be loyal to the composers who are no longer living. It is part of my job as a conductor to defend the composers who no longer could speak to defend himself when some performers distorting their instruction even if I had to disappoint some critics or listeners.

Any way, what makes music so interesting is that we as performers bring live music to the public and even one’s interpretation can be different but the music is still great and transcends all of human imperfection.

Jahja Ling

This email was sent to a San Diego Symphony subscriber regarding Jahja’s thoughts about interpretation.
Thank you for your gracious email.

First of all, there is no need for apology. Because you are such a passionate music lover you wanted to express the the emotion of disapproval of any misinterpretation of a piece which you love so much and I admire you for it.

I am by nature also a “Romantic” because when I was still young and playing the piano well, I love to play Chopin, Schumann and Liszt. When I became a conductor, Lenny Bernstein influenced me deeply by his conviction and passion of making music. As you may already know, that he taught me at Tanglewood in 1979 and a year later I was awarded Leonard Bernstein Conducting Fellowship at Tanglewood in 1980. He then invited me as a Fellow at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute where he was the Artistic Director in 1982 and he was very generous to spend many hours daily to teach us for the entire month we were there. In 1979 Lenny conducted Mahler Symphony No.9 with the Boston Symphony at Tanglewwod which I heard live for the first time and it remained the most moving and unforgettable performance I have ever experienced throughout my life. The audience was in tears and even sobbing after that performance. Since that, I love listening and conducting Mahler and got most of my inspiration and insight from Lenny who personally taught me in depth especially the 5th Symphony that you mentioned which I did here in San Diego in 2003. Next season, I am conducting the 9th with our orchestra and the score which I will be using was personally autographed by Lenny and Christoph von Dohnanyi gave me the complete facsimile of the original manuscript of this Symphony as a Christmas present which will help me to interpret this profound work.

I do not often conduct Wagner because his orchestral repertoire is limited but Bruckner is another romantic composer whom I admire and love to perform. Unfortunately, people in the US do not appreciate Bruckner as much as in Europe or even in Asia. Next October, I am guest conducting the National Symphony of Taiwan in Taipei for their 25th anniversary season and they asked me to do Bruckner 7th. I am happy that after the last Bruckner which I did 7 years ago, I can program his 4th Symphony, the”Romantic” with our orchestra in March 2012.

I never read Bernstein’s Essay on Beethoven you mentioned and I will definitely get a copy. His Harvard Norton Lectures and his Young People’s Concerts series were the most illuminating and inspiring to me and I am watching these DVDs often when I traveled on long flights and it is still a revelation.

When I began my tenure in Cleveland, I was very careful not to intrude or change their “tradition” especially when many of George Szell’s musicians were still playing with the Orchestra and they were so used to with his style and tempi. I even had some opposition for my tempi from the Orchestra especially when I first did the Eroica because I tried to do as close to Beethoven’s metronome marking. However, after I had a few years experience and gained their trust, I was encouraged to express my views and did what I believe even though it took some time to convince them and it worked so wonderfully afterwards (see attached my Beethoven concert reviews of symphonies 3, 5, 7, 9). Finally the Eroica I did with them in 1998 the last time (after at least three different previous occasions) was now remembered by the Orchestra, public and critics as one of the highlights of my tenure there along with Mahler 6.

I am right now in Sydney conducting the Sydney Symphony for 4 sold out concerts with Lang Lang at the Opera House until the end of June. On August 13 , I will be conducting The Cleveland Orchestra for a concert with Yuja Wang at Blossom as well as concert at Severance Hall on August 19 for Cooper Violin Competition. On September 10, The Cleveland Orchestra has again invited me to conduct Beethoven Symphony No. 9 in a special concert of the 10th anniversary of 9/11 event( I did the similar concert right after 9/11 with them with Beethoven 5th which was Telecast on PBS).

I respect your enjoyment of listening music with such an involvement and pay a close attention to all the details in phrasing, textures and the inner voicing of every composition. If you have any time perhaps we shall meet for lunch and may be I can share more of my musical background and to get to know your thoughts and perspective. It would be very valuable for me to listen to you as our loyal subscriber and to hear things which I can apply to further the upward momentum of our orchestra. Please let me know if you are interested or available to meet when I return in July.

With warm regards,