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Reflections

Remembering Jorja Fleezanis

Jorja Fleezanis at center stage in a performance of John Adams’ Violin Concerto in 2003. Photo by Greg Helgeson

“I still respect the advice I was given when I started out as concertmaster: be very strong, be humble, understand the tremendous respect you must have for the musicit must be above all things. To build rapport, to guide others, you have to understand, appreciate and respect all others, for everyone to be at the top.” Jorja Fleezanis  

Jorja Fleezanis, the extraordinary concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra from 1989 to 2009, died on Friday, September 9, of natural causes, in her home in Lake Leelanau, Michigan, outside of Traverse City, where she had recently retired.  Known as a violinist, barrier-breaking concertmaster, chamber musician, and among the pre-eminent teachers of orchestral technique, she was 70 years old. 

A person of tremendous humanity, Fleezanis was generous, warm-hearted, intellectually curious and wholly committed to music, her colleagues and her students. Her magnificent presence has made an indelible mark on the sound and spirit of the Minnesota Orchestra. 

‘The Sunshine of her Presence’  

In a career marked by tenacity and daring, the Detroit-born Jorja Fleezanis became one of only two women in the Chicago Symphony in 1973 when she was just 21. She joined the San Francisco Symphony in 1981 as associate concertmaster and during that time formed the FOG Trio with pianist Garrick Ohlsson and cellist Michael Grebanier. “From the time we first played together when founding the FOG Trio in 1983, I realized that Jorja was not only a transcendent musician but a collaborator of the most profound depth and humanity,” said Ohlsson. “Countless others thrived in the sunshine of her presence, as I did. I can’t begin to fathom what her loss will mean for all of us.” 

In 1989, Fleezanis was recruited by then-Music Director Edo de Waart to serve as concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra. “Jorja Fleezanis was a force of nature,” recalls de Waart. “She put more into her music than anyone I ever worked with. She had a tremendous instinct for how things should be played. In my experience that is a rare talent—as was her ability to be charming and frank at the same time. She called things exactly as she saw them. Jorja was a great friend, and her passing is a tremendous loss to me and the world of classical music.”  

Breaking Barriers 

Indeed, Fleezanis was a wise presence through the tenures of three Minnesota Orchestra music directors—Edo de Waart, Eiji Oue and Osmo Vänskä. Breaking a barrier to become the first female concertmaster in Minnesota Orchestra history, she served in the role for the Orchestra’s first-ever tours of Europe and Japan in 1998 and was a public face and inspiring champion of the Orchestra over two decades. She was succeeded in the concertmaster chair by Erin Keefe following an interim period with Sarah Kwak in an acting capacity. This succession ensured that younger generations of Orchestra fans have grown up with a woman as the ensemble’s concertmaster during a time when the collective string section’s ranks have now shifted to women in the majority.  

Fleezanis was passionately committed to new music, and the Minnesota Orchestra commissioned two major solo works for her: the John Adams Violin Concerto, which she debuted in 1994 with Edo de Waart conducting, and Ikon of Eros by Sir John Tavener, which she and the Orchestra premiered in 2002 and recorded a year later for Reference Recordings. She later described those premieres as “high-water marks,” saying “they brought recognition not just to me but to the Orchestra, for supporting new music and bringing these two works into the repertory, and they gave our community invaluable exposure to the creative voices of our time.” She was also a key advocate of the Orchestra’s annual Composer Institute, which supported the work of emerging composers through rehearsals, seminars and performances of their music.  

Minnesota Orchestra Conductor Laureate Osmo Vänskä, who worked closely with Fleezanis for the final seven years of her Minnesota tenure, said, “Jorja was a wonderful musician, and she had so much passion and love for music. She was always open-minded when speaking about life, food and wine, new ideas and, of course, music. I look back on my years working with her with great fondness and appreciation.” 

Preparing the Next Generation  

In 2009, Fleezanis made the decision to step down from her concertmaster position and embark on a new role as professor of violin and orchestral studies at Indiana University’s prestigious Jacobs School of Music. She saw her mission now as preparing the next generation of musicians to carry on a tradition of symphonic excellence. “I want them to understand what’s possible,” she said at the time. “How they have to live inside the music. I want to nurture in them a deep commitment to the ideals of what symphony orchestras should be doing for music and for their communities—so each of them personally will become a bridge between the public and the music.”  

Her former student, then colleague, Lydia Miller Choorapuzha later described Fleezanis as “never questioning the potential of a student, but rather applying herself towards creating in the student the same commitment to the page that she felt so deeply in her soul.” 

The list of educational organizations Fleezanis served is extensive, including the University of Minnesota, Round Top International Festival Institute, Music@Menlo Festival and New World Symphony. She retired from her Indiana University role in 2021 and most recently was teaching at Interlochen Center for the Arts and the Music Academy of the West.   

In Service to Music 

Living a life in service to music was a trait Fleezanis shared with her husband, Michael Steinberg, over their 26-year marriage. An eminent musicologist, Steinberg was known to Minnesota audiences as a brilliant program annotator and former artistic advisor to Sommerfest. When he died in 2009, Fleezanis created The Michael Steinberg and Jorja Fleezanis Fund to commission new work rooted in their passion for music and words from composers “who were bold pioneers, pushing the boundaries of music ever outward.” Their most recent commission had its premiere in May 2022, featuring composer Jessica Meyer, and the next commission is slated for a 2023 premiere, spotlighting composer Jungyoon Wie. 

Known by friends and colleagues as a bright and exuberant presence, Fleezanis was also deeply empathetic and philosophical. “We can't ever really enjoy positive optimism unless we've gone through a certain amount of darkness,” she said in a 2021 interview with Talking Beats podcaster Daniel Lelchuk. “And I think darkness doesn't mean we have to give up and despair. But when we listen to our despair in a musical way, like with Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann—they’re special people. These three gentlemen particularly get me to that place of despair, darkness and a heaviness that is hard to bear alone. And sometimes when you share that in the presence of a musical voice like these three, you come away and that dark part of you is much less painful. Those feelings aren’t in your cells anymore, they have gone to an upper level of experience. Maybe that’s inspiration, maybe that’s ecstatic hope that somebody else has gone through this.” 

When she left the Minnesota Orchestra in 2009, Fleezanis said: “For me, high praise would be: ‘Jorja, you never coasted.’ Early in my career I was told, ‘If you play like that in every concert, you’ll burn out’ but I knew that wasn’t right. Playing with full commitment gives back: it revitalizes me.” 

Jorja Fleezanis played music and lived her life with full commitment, and we thank her for these gifts.  

In 2009, Fleezanis joined Minnesota Orchestra violist Sam Bergman in conversation during her final week with the ensemble. In the hour-long interview, she reflected on her life in music and her two decades with the Minnesota OrchestraPortions of the conversation were published on the Orchestra's website at the time, but it has now been published by Bergman in full and shared here with permission in remembrance of a wonderful colleague, mentor and friend.

I am so saddened to learn of Jorja Fleezanis’ passing. She was one of the most sophisticated, devoted and omnivorously curious musicians I have ever known. She had a beautiful attitude about life and music and always found the best way to motivate her students and her colleagues to make beautiful music together. She will be profoundly missed by so many.

Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas

When Jorja came to the Minnesota Orchestra in 1989, she was a beacon for artistry and collaboration. The Orchestra immediately felt the impact of her leadership and presence. We were always astounded by her ability to keep the highest artistic standards and at the same time partner with a wide range of eccentric artists.  

Principal Cello Anthony Ross

Her warmth and her generous, nurturing spirit touched countless people everywhere.  We had a wonderful meal with her less than two weeks ago near her home in Leelenau Peninsula and shared our dreams, gossip and memories.  She was alive and lit up with savoring the season and being with friends.  We are deeply saddened and shocked by her loss, which will be felt by all that knew her.

Cellist Beth Rapier