Daniel Lelchuk offers a warm reflection on the sorely missed Jorja Fleezanis:
“Having a curiosity to know everything, or as much as you can. And believe me, you’re never going to learn it all anyway, so you may as well have a hell of a good time learning what you can and living deeper at the moment than just hydrofoiling through life, on the surface, which is, in the end, pretty unsatisfactory.”
If there was ever someone in music who practiced what she preached, it would be Jorja Fleezanis. The great American violinist who died suddenly last month brought unending curiosity to everything she dealt with—and in doing so held her collaborators to higher standards and enriched the lives of all those who were lucky to know and work with her. She was so blissfully free of clichés, free of silly bluster, free of hypocrisy, so authentically herself. She was a woman of such substance: a particular combination of demanding, curious, warmly maternal, razor sharp, observant, clever…
I first met Jorja in the fall of 2009 when she started her professorship at the Jacobs School of Music, Indiana University, Bloomington. I had never met someone like her, in or out of music. She had an energy all her own, an infectious passion. Fresh off the heels of serving as the longtime concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra, here was a great musical force, sitting in the back of the second violins of a freshman-year orchestra playing with more commitment, dedication, and drive than the whole string section put together. And it wasn’t just here or there. Jorja came to some rehearsal (IU has five orchestras all of which are rehearsing concurrently) every day, interacting with conductors, players all over the orchestra, hanging around at break and afterwards to talk music. While most professors at Indiana would never deign to set foot in a student orchestra rehearsal, Jorja loved it, relished every moment, and transferred her passion and attention to detail to all who would absorb it.
My first real interactions with Jorja were early in the Fall of 2009. At the time I was really high on the wonderful Mozart divertimenti for two horns and strings (like K. 247, 287, and 334) and asked if by chance she might coach a group I put together—from the first violin position. I thought it a semi-clever and not so subtle way of asking if she would play with us. She readily agreed, and we had some rehearsals, but for scheduling reasons getting seven people together regularly to rehearse proved too difficult, so the group fizzled out, and I thought it was finished.
Later that season, by which point we had gotten to know each other somewhat over meals and long conversations, Jorja asked me how well I knew the music of the Second Viennese School, particularly the first quartet of Schoenberg. Her idea was to assemble a string quartet, two faculty and two students, to study intensely the music of Schoenberg (and later Berg and Webern, too) and bring the underplayed chamber music masterpieces of the Second Viennese School to life. She had studied these pieces with her teacher Walter Levin, first violinist of the LaSalle Quartet (who specialized in this repertoire), and a central passion of Jorja’s life was this rich, thorny, difficult body of music.
It was during this period that I got to know her as not just great musician, but as great and voracious reader, filled with wonder and curiosity, reading poetry to us, exploring connections between Schoenberg and various visual artists working at the same time— all in the spirit of illuminating the music through the cultural context in which it was created. She was constantly inspired by the love of books and literature of her late husband, the music writer Michael Steinberg, and she credited him with opening up so many intellectual doors in her life that she in turn tried to open for others.
Years and various Schoenberg cycles later, Jorja came numerous times to New Orleans to play as guest concertmaster with the Louisiana Philharmonic—I will never forget how her sound soared in the violin solos in the prélude to Wagner’s Tannhaüser and the Variations for Orchestra of Webern, how the entire strings shone as she led in symphonies of Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, piano concerti of Mozart and Rachmaninoff, and much more.
There are so many vivid individual memories of Jorja, many warm, some frustrating, some challenging, most special in some way or another. We made dinner together many times, usually at her house, but sometimes she came to my apartment in Bloomington. On one such night, my close friend and studio mate cellist Kevin Kunkel and I had prepared a feast for the three of us. She came with a DVD in hand, and announced “After dinner, we are watching this.” It was the famous video version of Richard Strauss’s Elektra, starring the great Leonie Rysanek, conducted by Karl Böhm. So after dinner, the three of us went to my computer, put the DVD in, and sat riveted and glued to the computer screen late into the night as we watched this musical and dramatic triumph. It was a night I will never forget. Even after having watched it multiple times over the course of years, Jorja was shook and stunned. What professor at what music school shares experiences like this with students? Jorja did.
At the beginning of Covid, Jorja retired from Indiana and moved to a beautiful house she built high up on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan, in her beloved home state. In the middle of the pandemic, I invited her to be a guest on my podcast Talking Beats with Daniel Lelchuk and for this we had a long, frank conversation. I am so glad we did this, as it’s the only extended conversation of hers in the public, and it paints such a wonderful, intimate portrait of her and her deep relationship to music. Near the end, I asked her what she is devoting her time to, and she explained two things.
One, she wanted to assemble all the music reviews of her late husband Michael Steinberg and have them published as a book, as she so badly wanted to prevent history from forgetting his great writings. And two, she said “As far as young people, I want to do something on some level to teach how to love music. The relationship that you have with music. What is supposed to come out? It’s not necessarily only teaching the music as it should be taught in terms of the structure and what’s in it. But just your relationship to it. That’s something I want to explore, it’s something I want to learn to become a little bit more focused in how I would introduce it…Particularly the three gentlemen of the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg, Berg, Webern). If I don’t take the time to continue that work, I will have not finished my role as a musician, as a teacher, as a mentor.”
In January of this year, Jorja and I were talking about what we were both up to musically. Out of the blue, she texted me a selfie and then a picture of a path through the deep upper-Midwest snow she had cleared herself. She sent the accompanying text: “This is also part of my daily experience, master of the SnowJoe snow blower!” I wrote back “Fantastic!!! You look happy and healthy!!!! And a good clear path!!!” to which she replied “You know me, important to know where you’re going in life and phrasing!!”
I think she did indeed know where she was going. I am so sad her life was cut abruptly short so she couldn’t quite get there.