The power and the passion

  • Article by: LARRY FUCHSBERG , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 19, 2008 - 10:44 AM

It's an emotional time for the Minnesota Orchestra's longtime concertmaster Jorja Fleezanis, who's caring for an ailing husband as she prepares her star turn in the great romantic violin concerto of Edward Elgar.

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Jorja Fleezanis, has been concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra for nearly two decades.

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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'I've always had love affairs through music," says Jorja Fleezanis. She's speaking, as she's wont to do, with her whole body; her home studio, lined with scores and LPs, is too small to contain her energy. Her eyes gleam. "You don't have to actualize such things. But there are wonderful people in the world, people you're drawn to. They supply you with something, and you give something back."

Concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra, Fleezanis (whose given name is pronounced "Georgia") has been giving prodigiously to local audiences for nearly two decades. She is one of this region's most formidable and most beloved artists.

Ask other musicians about her and their answers are strikingly consistent. "She's an overwhelming artistic force, a constructive whirlwind," says Basil Reeve, the Minnesota Orchestra's principal oboe and a longtime Fleezanis colleague. "She's one of the great translators of musical feeling into sound. And she's not hampered by an outrageous ego."

Fleezanis appears often with the orchestra as soloist; in recent seasons she's been featured in music by Bernstein and Vivaldi, Alban Berg and Kurt Weill. Twin Cities concertgoers, however, have yet to hear her in one of the great romantic violin concertos -- which alone would make this week's performances of Edward Elgar's 1910 concerto, conducted by former music director Neville Marriner, an event.

But Elgar's concerto, written at the zenith of his career, is one of a kind -- and one that Fleezanis seems predestined to perform. "It's an exciting and tender music, like nothing else I've ever played," says the violinist, who's not shy about seeing the world through the lens of gender. "It has that swagger I love about him, that sense of a culture [Edwardian England] based on grandness. In that way, it's grossly masculine. But then, in its quietest moments, it's incredibly feminine."

(Fleezanis finds a similar duality in her "animated" violin, made in 1700 by Venetian master Matteo Goffriller -- she calls it "Matt" -- and donated to the Minnesota Orchestra in 2003 for her use. "It has a feisty female voice," she laughs, "but it's not without male hormones -- or an Italian sizzle.")

A few years older than Elgar was when he was writing his concerto, Fleezanis, 56, has been in no hurry to play it. "The piece asks for subtlety of judgment and a sense of proportion," she says. "I can't imagine having done it before now." She first performed it in early February with an enterprising orchestra in Pendleton, Ore., in what amounted to an out-of-town tryout for this week's concerts. "I was flying in Oregon," she recalls.

Detroit: Growing up musical

Fleezanis' musical odyssey began in Detroit, a city she still feels close to. (She shows me, without having to hunt for it, a black-and-white photo of her childhood home, which burned in the 1967 riots.) Her father emigrated from Greece; her mother was born in the United States to Greek immigrant parents. Though neither of them was musically trained, music and dancing were habitual at family gatherings.

Fleezanis grew up with the violin. Her mother loved its sound; her brother started lessons around the time Jorja was born. When he quit, at 16, his instrument was passed to her. She was 8.

She began studying with Ara Zerounian, an intensely devoted public-school music teacher who knew how to nurture talent. Now in his mid-80s, he's the only teacher Fleezanis names in her bio: "I call him every year on his birthday and say that without him none of us would have gotten past the first book." She quickly produces another old photo, this of her Detroit classmates, and ticks off their accomplishments: "She's in the Boston Symphony. This guy's concertmaster in Utah. This guy, who I was madly in love with, is principal viola of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. And here am I," she goes on, "somber because my mother wouldn't buy me nylons and I had to wear socks."

For her ninth or 10th birthday, Fleezanis was given an LP that still occupies a place of honor in her studio: a recording of Vienna-born Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962), one of the greatest of violinists, and perhaps the most endearing. There was one cut she replayed endlessly, an arrangement of Debussy's "The Girl With the Flaxen Hair."

"Something about Kreisler's vibrato and portamento [string slides] penetrated deep into that place that opens up when you're listening to music -- call it your heart, or your soul," says Fleezanis, still visibly under the old violinist's spell. "His playing said, 'I won't hurt you; I'm here to bring magic into your life.' No matter how tense or blue I was, I would listen to 'The Girl With the Flaxen Hair' and melt."

Elgar's Violin Concerto was dedicated to Kreisler, who gave the premiere with the composer conducting. And there's a passage of "naive, vulnerable innocence" in the concerto that reminds Fleezanis of "The Girl With the Flaxen Hair."

Along with the dedication to Kreisler, Elgar's score bears a more enigmatic inscription: "Here is enshrined the soul of. ... " Most biographers believe the ellipses refer to Alice Stuart Wortley -- daughter of a pre-Raphaelite painter, wife of a member of Parliament -- who for a time was Elgar's muse. He called her "Windflower," and associated her with several touching themes in the concerto. This was Elgar's own "love affair through music," and it finds in Fleezanis an empathic interpreter. "The music is bound up with Elgar's confused, clandestine inner life," she says. "But fine for us -- many of us live there."

Minnesota Orchestra: recruited by De Waart

Fast-forward now, past Fleezanis' studies at the Interlochen Arts Academy, the Cleveland Institute of Music and finally the Cincinnati Conservatory, where her Old World teacher thought women incapable of his analytic approach to music. Past her single, "miserable" year in the Chicago Symphony. ("Boy, did I have high ideals," she recalls.) Past a four-year stint as concertmaster of the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra, which she founded with her conductor/boyfriend. (I lose count of her ex-boyfriends in the course of our talk.)

In 1980 she landed a one-year contract with the San Francisco Symphony. The next year, after working "bloody hard" for the audition, she became that orchestra's associate concertmaster under music director Edo de Waart, who liked the uninhibited physicality of her playing. She also met and married critic and essayist Michael Steinberg, then employed as the San Francisco orchestra's program annotator.

De Waart decamped to the Minnesota Orchestra in 1986, and in '89 he recruited Fleezanis to fill the concertmaster's chair in Minneapolis. "I was looking for someone who maybe wouldn't win a contest for playing the most notes per second, but who had a deep understanding and love of music," says the Dutch-born conductor, reached at his home in Wisconsin. "Jorja was ideal for the job."

"She's a tremendously hard worker," continues de Waart, who becomes an artistic partner of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in the 2010-11 season. "She has great wisdom and humanity, great curiosity about what makes music and people tick. And she can approach a piece freshly, from the ground up."

Settling in Edina, Fleezanis and Steinberg soon became mainstays of the local scene -- the Twin Cities' foremost musical power couple. "Jorja's contribution to the community has been immeasurable," says Reeve, the oboist. Shortly after her arrival, she began teaching at the University of Minnesota. The orchestra commissioned new works for her, including an acclaimed concerto by John Adams. Three years ago, she and Steinberg joined the migration to downtown, moving to a spacious apartment near the new Guthrie.

Fast-forward again, to last month. Steinberg, who will turn 80 in October, undergoes emergency surgery. (He's now recovering at home.) Fleezanis, meanwhile, is in the throes of preparing the Elgar.

"I feel this whole piece is very wrapped up in Michael," she says. "Maybe I was meant to play it now," she muses, citing a long history of major performances that have coincided with life-changing events. "It's coming on the heels of something very traumatic. I'll probably cry -- I'm in a crying mood these days."

Already imbued with one love affair, Elgar's score is now freighted with another.

Fragile, fugitive music

The crux of the concerto comes in its final movement, in an unvirtuosic, gently accompanied cadenza for the soloist. Fleezanis' words capture its sound: "There's this unearthly strumming that's going on in the orchestra, over which the violin floats, as if it's having an out-of-body experience."

The cadenza is largely about memory; Fleezanis compares it to an old attic trunk, full of ghosts. As Elgar put it, the violin "sadly thinks over the first movement." This is fragile, fugitive music, but it seems safe in Fleezanis' hands. As the old photos in her studio make plain, memory is a Fleezanis specialty. The past, for her, is anything but dim. When she speaks of family members and teachers and boyfriends, they're in the room; describing them, she toggles between past and present tenses. It's hard to imagine a deeper affinity between performer and performed.

"Orchestra Hall, where you can play very softly, will be a gratifying space for the Elgar," says Fleezanis, looking toward her concerts this week. "And I know my colleagues will be with me."

Larry Fuchsberg writes frequently about music.

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  • MINNESOTA ORCHESTRA

    What: Edward Elgar's Violin Concerto and Brahms' Symphony No. 4.

    Who: Jorja Fleezanis, violin, Neville Marriner, conductor.

    When: 11 a.m. Thu., 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat.

    Where: Orchestra Hall, 1111 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis.

    Tickets: $21-$83. 612-371-5656, or www. minnesotaorchestra.org.

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