Violinist Jorja Fleezanis died September 9; she was 70 years old. For over two decades, she was the first chair for the Minnesota Orchestra. She was also one of the first woman in America to be the concertmaster of a major symphony orchestra. Below, Janet Horvath, the former associate principal cello at the Minnesota Orchestra, writes a tribute.
It seems impossible that the shining light of my friend and brilliant colleague Jorja Fleezanis is no longer. When I reminisce about our 20 years together in the Minnesota Orchestra, sometimes it’s the small moments that stand out the most.
Although she had a blazing commitment to the music, Jorja always kept her cool in her concertmaster chair, even when mishaps occurred. I recall a performance at Carnegie Hall near the end of her tenure in 2009 with the esteemed violin soloist Leonidas Kavakos. His performances were always impeccable, but this evening he seemed unsettled in the Sibelius concerto. After a quick verbal exchange with Jorja, he reached over to grab her violin without missing a beat. It was not the typical issue of a broken string. Jorja discovered that somehow the chin rest on his violin had come loose. She fidgeted with the chin rest, but when she realized a screw was missing, she tried in vain to use one of her pearl stud earrings. Rather than distract the audience further, she traded the ailing violin for her seatmate’s. Both soloist and concertmaster played the rest of the piece on an unfamiliar instrument. After the audience and most of the Orchestra members had exited, Jorja stayed behind. She scanned the stage floor looking for the offending screw. At last she found it, picked it up off the floor, and with a triumphant grin she brandished the screw to those who were still in the hall.
Jorja’s voice cajoling, cheering and coaxing continues to resound in my ears. “Get excited about music, people! I love you, but these musical phrases need to be more buoyant, spicy, brilliant.” I can hear Jorja’s voice cajoling, cheering and coaxing. She had the uncanny ability to ignite a spark in her friends, her students, her colleagues and her audiences. Whenever Jorja walked into a room, her presence filled the space, whether large or small. Her close attention never wavered, even in a crowded backstage hallway or in a jam-packed rehearsal room. She exuded inclusivity, and her audiences felt collectively embraced.
I admired Jorja tremendously. Bold and captivating, she was a consummate leader who blazed trails for the rest of us. Somehow, she made every musician feel that their voice was integral to the ensemble, and if there was ever a disagreement, she found common ground. She had a keen diagnostic ear and her quick problem-solving served her well as the ideal partner to the conductor, as a consummate musician and as an adored teacher. Somehow, she always left room for new ideas, for probing deeply into the music, and for unexpected moments in the heat of a performance.
What struck me so was that Jorja gave 100 percent of her focus to everyone she met. She always listened intently and engaged warmly with each person she came into contact with, whether they were audience members young or old, board members, neighbors, students, or the many guest artists and conductors who appeared with the Orchestra. She had a remarkable ease of communication, and conversations with her were always stimulating.
Jorja’s irrepressible personality filled every moment, whether it was cooking a gourmet meal or decorating her trendy Minneapolis condo—and later her darling house in Bloomington, Indiana—in bold colors with floor-to-ceiling books, sheet music and CDs occupying the majority of rooms. A unique mural in her Indiana home, a huge vibrant painting of a street scene in New York, was a focal point and an ode to the pivotal artists and composers that influenced her life. Set near Carnegie Hall in New York at 57th Street and 7th Avenue, the tableau features classical music luminaries John Adams, Béla Bartók, Leonard Bernstein, Alfred Brendel, Maurizio Pollini, Thea Dispeker, Igor Stravinsky, Garrick Ohlsson, James Levine and Arturo Toscanini. Also in the painting modestly looking on are Jorja and her beloved late husband, the musicologist and writer Michael Steinberg.
Her deep commitment to music-making extended well beyond the stage or the studio. Students recall being led downstairs in Jorja and Michael’s home to hear poetry and old scratchy 78 vinyl classical recordings of the great singers of the past, to polish keen listening skills. Believing in the vocal qualities of violin playing, Jorja had her pupils actually sing phrases to help them find their own voice. The most important conversations often took place in the dining room. Using the metaphor of a diverse menu at a restaurant, she encouraged her students to embrace all styles of music and to seek the distinctive essence of each composer.
Jorja’s big-heartedness is remembered by so many. A pianist colleague reminisced about playing a Brahms piano sonata for Jorja. A discussion of the rich symphonic sound Brahms sought in his music followed. After three hours, the pianist pulled out his checkbook, but Jorja would only agree to a home-cooked dinner in return for her time. A co-worker remembers the private violin demonstration Jorja gave to her 3-year-old grandson. The toddler, completely enchanted, never forgot the experience. Jorja’s friend Mari Carlson told me about gatherings they called “Listen Up.” A small group of about 40 families—including Jorja’s dentist, her doctor and her massage therapist—would meet for dinner and conversation. Michael would prepare a poem to read and he’d bring his large boom box loaded with a selection of music to play for the group. Jorja and Michael were ever eager to share their enthusiasm for music.
A staunch advocate of new music, she relished the opportunity to put the first imprint on a newly composed work, quite aware of the limitless possibilities available to a performer when there have been no previous interpretations. She established The Michael Steinberg and Jorja Fleezanis Fund as a memorial to her husband with the goal of creating a legacy of new chamber works that bring together music and the written word.
Jorja had a whimsical side too. After the premiere at Westminster Church in May 2022 of the third Steinberg-Fleezanis Fund commission, composed by Jessica Meyer and based on the Rumi poem “Where You Love From,” there was a gathering to celebrate the success of the evening. When the party began to wane in the wee hours of the evening, Jorja was still too excited to sleep. Would Mari watch some television with her? They curled up on the sofa. While munching chocolate chip oatmeal cookies (they were still frozen!), Jorja and Mari watched the movie inspired by Chris Van Allsburg’s children’s book The Polar Express with delight.
Several thrilling projects were incubating in Jorja’s psyche when she was taken from us this past September. Most of the details are in place for the fourth commission by composer Jungyoon Wei, a piece set to the poem “For the Sleepwalkers” by Edward Hirsch, to be held May 13, 2023, at Westminster Presbyterian Church near Orchestra Hall. On the top of Jorja’s to-do list was her plan to publish all of Michael’s Boston Globe music reviews—totaling about 600 pages. Knowing how much these projects meant to Jorja, Mari is determined to bring them to fruition.
Jorja was beloved by thousands of fans who were captivated by her very presence on the stage, week after week. Generous and passionate, and with the enthusiasm she brought to everything she touched, Jorja exemplified what we all aspire to—a life well-lived.
Janet Horvath, the Minnesota Orchestra’s associate principal cello from 1980 to 2012, is a lifelong performing classical musician, soloist, author, speaker and educator. Her writing has been published in The New York Times, The Atlantic, and national and international music journals. An audio-documentary runner-up for the Missouri Review 2021 Miller Audio Contest, her book Playing (Less) Hurt—an Injury Prevention Guide for Musicians has garnered critical acclaim. Her upcoming memoir The Cello Still Sings will be published early 2023.