Transcript of MinnPost interview with Minnesota Orchestra Concertmaster Jorja Fleezanis

MinnPost: This has been a pretty long and chaotic day for you, I imagine. Are you burned out yet?

Jorja Fleezanis: It’s been pretty nonstop. But that’s OK; this is a big day. This is a big articulation point in my career.

MP: Give me the chronology of events that resulted in you deciding to go to Indiana University.

JF:
I think my first visit a little over four years ago obviously hit a very deep chord in the minds of many faculty there. Even on the drive back to the airport there was a clear message from [IU string department chair] Larry Hurst saying they were interested in my coming there and continuing my master class in orchestral repertory. So it was a seed that was planted.

There was not much of a relationship at all with the school before then. But many years ago I was saying that one of my career aspirations was doing some teaching like this, including this orchestral training program in tandem with other faculty and a set of conductors. At this point in my career I know a lot of people and I’ll be able to bring my own battery of friends who are conductors and other artists I have known through the years, marching through. I see this expanding upon a world I have lived in for 30 years, bringing it to a professional root system of training of symphony orchestra musicians.

MP: Will the responsibilities of teaching and less time playing than you do now with the orchestra — is it inevitable that your own playing will slip some?

JF:
Not necessarily. It is a question of how I plan for the new opportunities, after being unleashed in my week-to-week working with the symphony orchestra. There will be plenty of opportunities to do solo and chamber music, which I haven’t done enough of before, and honestly I can’t tell you what else will sprout out of this. I have many friends around the world and I can’t say what serendipitously may happen, but I have a lot of faith I won’t be idle. I will be teaching, and if one thing keeps you very honest it is teaching. I have done it enough in tandem with my other life. I don’t think there is any likelihood of losing my edge. It is a wonderful faculty here, and there are many events right here at the university for me if I want to participate.

MP: I guess there is also a fair amount of pressure and burden in being the concertmaster that you will be able to shed. Is there a lot of administrative work in your current job? Is it similar to teaching in that respect?

JF:
There are a lot of human dynamics, so it is similar in that sense. Not in any kind of counseling way, but you have to work closely with personnel, understanding where people are at. Preparing for auditions is a huge part, and that is something that will come very much to bear on my training in Indiana when [preparing her] students. You have to be prepared, ready for a life in this profession. I have spent a lot of time here on the maintenance of the music, preparing the parts. [Teaching in Indiana] will allow me to put down on paper and create a curriculum — things like the responsibility for bowings, and living with an orchestra, and the issues and dynamics between a conductor and an orchestra, countless things that will translate from living my life here into my experimental stage as teacher.

When you create a vacuum, something else exists that wasn’t there before, and I am prepared to live those things. I have thought about writing a book about this, and other things waiting in wings.

As far as the music, I feel like I haven’t dropped a stitch except that I won’t be up onstage every week. You ask how it will affect my playing. When you reach a certain stride — when I am off for a few weeks my playing does not suffer. I am old enough now. It is mental as much as physical. Time off really means that when it comes to actually playing you bring that clarity that is so important to playing smart. When you have been playing long and hard there is no time to breathe and the body starts to go through unhealthy phases. You need time to recharge, and this will be a big recharge. But I could have a lot of playing to do too.

MP: It sounds like in some respects you will have more control over your career, and that one of the benefits of the move is your ability to make and choose your own options.

JF:
There is no doubt there is a certain quality of liberation here. I can go out and do things I myself will generate but also have so many colleagues who can pick up the phone and say, ‘How about this or that,’ or simply to get a dialogue going. The sky is the limit at this point. It is really hard to say, but in the arts when you are at a certain point in your game people know that, and by making this move I am now accessible in ways that are very different than before. From there the road could lead in many directions.

MP: You had mentioned before the duties you wanted to impart to your students, and how they included a greater understanding of the relationship between the conductor and the orchestra. Talk a little bit about the relationship between the conductor and the concertmaster.

JF:
I think as far as the relationship with the music directors, [concertmasters] have to be 100 percent prepared to follow and defend where they are going with the music. That means having a certain amount of intuition about their gestures and facial contortions. You have to be incredibly facile in getting their interpretation going forward from the first run, but you also have to be present and doing things you believe in 100 percent. Your own performance is guided by way you receive and participate in every whim that happens from the podium, and that kind of stabilizing has to happen at a very split-second kind of rate of reception and corroboration. It has to show total unanimity from the get go. It is so split-second, I can’t think of anything else in art — maybe dance — but in an orchestra you have 98 people up there and that synchronizing, reading off the music and what is coming from the podium and the baton and the facial and body language … that is what the students will be learning from me. And you do learn it —  how to develop better mental reaction. Of course some of it is your own responsibility, what you do and have to do before the conductor even begins to move.

MP: You say you need 100 percent unanimity with the music director, but aren’t these people almost by definition strong, idiosyncratic figures? You have worked with three separate music directors during your time with the Minnesota Orchestra. How can you say you have followed with 100 percent unanimity the philosophy and interpretations of all three?

JF:
I’ll put it to you this way: We haven’t talked about the most central piece of the relationship, which is the actual music itself —  the composer and the composition, which is what we all serve. If the conductor is falling short in any way shape or form, the players have a responsibility or duty to defend what is in the score. That is what I have been trained in and that discipline and priority have always been a part of the fabric in this orchestra. If you can think of the history and tradition and the heredity of this orchestra, it has always had an extremely self-disciplined manner. There have been very dynamic and important people, but we have not had a lot of flamboyant performers. Instead there is a lot of cohesiveness, and any time there has been a drop in the music I have always felt this orchestra rise up and take command of the music. That is true of all orchestras. But some can be riddled with personalities who marshal greater authority over the rest.

The person who sits in the chair after me will have to show that similar devotion to the music’s request and demand of us. And that is accomplished on many levels. It is knowing the repertoire deep enough so that the role modeling will raise both the style and the discipline simultaneously. I was an assistant concertmaster with an orchestra that zoomed into prominence when I was there, in San Francisco. I also spent a lot of time in Cincinnati and Chicago and other places. I knew the music and the repertory pretty well and that was critical, because when you lead the beginning of a piece you have to give confidence you know where you are going — it is the first pitch out. Taking that initiative is paramount to the confidence of whole orchestra. Everyone must be on the same page; but the concertmaster, in the tradition of the job, is one millisecond and one voltage higher in the pantheon of reaction.

MP: You have had a long and fruitful tenure that will be 20 years when you leave in June. I know there probably have been a lot of highlights, but are there one or two that really stand out in your memory?

JF:
That is always so difficult because you don’t want to leave anybody out. I’ll give you some examples that come to mind. One piece that I had a tremendous response to is a piece we played by Sibelius, called “Tapiola,” a tone poem of great, dramatic, fierce music. When Osmo [Vänskä] came to be music director, I knew he would bring “Tapiola” here and that he would record it. It is a Finnish piece. And when he announced we would do it I got excited, because I knew he was someone who would have an authentic relationship to the piece [Vänskä is Finnish]; that he would know how to convey the power and ferocity and the threatening moments and the shivers you get when you hear and play it. That week of those performances were truly gripping for me.

Another memorable week was with Kurt Sanderling. He was a senior conductor at this point and had never been with the [Minnesota] orchestra until coming here. He was a very picky and very demanding musician coming from an illustrious past working with wonderful orchestras in Russia. I had worked with him before in San Francisco and was thrilled when he came here. We did the Schubert “Great Symphony” and I’ll never forget the way he got our principal oboist, Basil Reeve, to play this very subtle and provocative passage. He looked like he could be your banker, but when he started to tell Basil how he wanted him to sound, he said ‘You must imagine yourself as a young gypsy girl,’ and the way he moved as he said it, there was no not-knowing exactly what he was doing and what he wanted. He said it with the right tone and allowed permission for the musician to get that and interpret it. That was an amazing moment onstage for me.

And then of course I can’t not mention the night we premiered the John Adams concerto [a violin work commissioned especially for Fleezanis]. It must have been 50-below outside, and it took everything people had to get to the performance, especially my Dad, who had come up from Florida. It was an exhilarating moment for me. I knew it was going to become a serious part of the repertory and to be the one to baptize that piece is one of the most remarkable — feeling blessed is not a word I use all the time, but I was blessed with that. It was a confluence of things, that Edo brought me here, and that he and I convinced John to write this. Edo knew a lot of John’s music and I had played it, and we are both advocates of new music; we have to defend it and encourage it. And there is a right of passage for any music, but this was virgin music. Once it is established by being played and having a recording or tape made, whether or not you like it, it becomes part of that music’s tradition and you have to consider that. So this was my moment to shape the music. I am very proud of that moment in my tenure.

MP: There aren’t many moments left for you now as concertmaster. When will you leave and when do you begin in Indiana?

JF:
I will play until the end of the subscription series in June. I believe I will begin with the school year of ’09, but there is a possibility — there is an ongoing invitation for me to participate in their summer music festival with the festival orchestra. We haven’t definitely gone there yet, but that may be my first baptism.

MP: Will there be any vacation?

JF:
I sure hope so. There will have to be time to move, but I’m sure Michael [her husband, writer and musicologist Michael Steinberg] and I will shake it out and spend time there and get accustomed. The school is poised to build a brand new school of music and Michael is loving the idea of being inside this thriving university atmosphere — and the dean is interested in having Michael participate in any way he can, doing impromptu things at drop of hat. He has got a lot of writing he wants to do. We both also have a lot of friends who are there or have been there. I will miss many of the wonderful people here, but we are excited. We are not walking into the arms of strangers.

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