By Laurence Vittes
Former Minnesota concertmaster Jorja Fleezanis is not afraid to be a role model. At Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music she holds the Dorothy Richard Starling Chair in Violin, is the head coach and creative director of the orchestral studies department, all the while preparing Schoenberg’s fourth and final quartet as part of a Second Viennese School retrospective.
In December Fleezanis will lead a third annual seminar for six BBC Orchestra violinists at the Snape Maltings arts complex in Benjamin Britten’s beloved Aldeburgh. During an email exchange from the Music Academy of the West where she was caught up in its whirl of teaching, mentoring, and playing, Fleezanis pointed out that her specially designed regimen of body work, professional workplace workshops, private lessons, and listening sessions are intended to “reinvigorate the mind, body, and soul.”
On June 22 Fleezanis participated in the Academy’s second Classical Evolution/Revolution Conference focused on cultural activism, unconventional career paths, broadening access to the arts in underserved communities, and overhauling outdated gender dynamics. The many representatives included Disney, London’s Southbank Centre, the Cultural Programs Division at the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, NPR, and a number of innovative artists.
In the context of the conference, what do you think about the future from a young string player’s point of view?
The same options that once stood before me are still in place: preparing to audition for a professional orchestra, braving a chamber-music career if and when you find yourself surrounded by ambitious and like-minded comrades, mastering the skills of freelancing, teaching, or most likely a combination of these and other options. Plus there are new options related to the impact and value our training is being shown to have on society.
What examples struck you in particular?
I was very impressed by how successful artists can take action in ways that go beyond the norms of playing in countless concert halls all over the world. Midori shared how she annually enlists young musicians to travel with her to remote areas in the world, bringing classical music as ambassadors of the West, and in the process also transforming the lives of the young musicians. Vijay Gupta, co-founder of Street Symphony in Los Angeles, explained how he brings light and music into the homeless community. Each has a basic trust that music always will lift and touch the soul.
What about examples from your own career?
Two such innovations remain alive to this day. During my final years at the Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music a young conductor named Paul Nadler and I took it into our heads to start a chamber orchestra—we populated it with fellow students and members of the Cincinnati Symphony. It afforded us a chance to cut our teeth on challenging repertoire we otherwise would never see, not to mention setting up, funding, and running a not-for-profit which has turned out to be a useful skill. I am pleased to say that the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra is still in business since its inception in 1974.
The other mad-cap venture from my past was joining forces in the early 80’s with other eager colleagues in the San Francisco Symphony to incorporate a chamber-music series. We called it Chamber Music Sundaes and, yes, we served ice cream sundaes at the concerts. The players did everything, from ordering the ice cream, selecting the repertoire, devising a sign up system, and handling the PR, to making sure that everything else that makes a concert happen got done. And from the most humble of beginnings, it remains an outlet for members of the SFS.
It sounds like a wake-up call for the musicians.
I urge young musicians to remember that their connection to music has awakened a voice inside of them, a voice whose purpose is to serve the art they’ve chosen to express to a greater public, whether it be large or small, close or far away, like Midori’s International Community Engagement Program. Imagine the lives you can change with that inner voice emanating from your instrument.
Please tell me about the special concert in November at the Jacobs School.
It will be the premiere of the Michael Steinberg and Jorja Fleezanis Fund’s second commission. The composer is Emily Cooley, a recent Curtis graduate, who has set words to John Taggart’s poem “Slow Song for Mark Rothko” for narrator, flute, cello, and percussion. The performers will be members of the Minnesota Orchestra and an actor from the Guthrie Theater. On the second half I will join the cellist and my viola colleague Steve Wyrczynski to perform Mozart’s great Divertimento in E-flat for String Trio, K. 563.