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Jorja Fleezanis, violinist and pioneering concertmaster, dies at 70

An undated photo provided by Ann Marsden shows Ms. Fleezanis, a dynamic violinist and dedicated teacher.ANN MARSDEN/NYT

Jorja Fleezanis, a dynamic violinist and dedicated teacher who was one of the first women to serve as concertmaster of a major symphony orchestra in the United States, died Sept. 9 at her home in Lake Leelanau, Mich. She was 70.

The Minnesota Orchestra, in which Ms. Fleezanis played from the first chair for two decades, said the cause was “a cardiovascular event.”

The concertmaster holds a key position with an orchestra, with considerable responsibility for defining its sound. Ms. Fleezanis was “a cornerstone player” in the Minnesota Orchestra, Osmo Vanska, its music director from 2003-22, said in a phone interview.

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“You need to be hearing the whole score and acting as second in command to the conductor,” Ms. Fleezanis explained to The Boston Globe this year. “You need to understand all the possible interpretive ways the conductor can go at that moment, so you’re prepared to make a sharp left, or a gentle left. And you create that unification, that sense of ensemble, almost instantaneously.”

Concertmasters often take solo turns, too, playing concertos with their own orchestras. Ms. Fleezanis used those opportunities to advocate for works that audiences were otherwise unlikely to hear from guest violinists — by Benjamin Britten, say, or Roger Sessions — and to promote new scores. She gave the premiere of John Adams’s Violin Concerto, in St. Paul, Minn., in 1994, collaborating on a pathbreaking piece that won the Grawemeyer Award for composition a year later.

For much of the history of the professional orchestra, the post of concertmaster had been reserved for men. Ms. Fleezanis, a “rebel with a violin,” as the Pioneer Press of St. Paul called her, sought to change that from early in her career.

“Being a concertmaster is terribly demanding,” she told The Cincinnati Post in 1976, “but women can handle the job as well as men can. I know that.”

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Ms. Fleezanis at first looked likely to break barriers at the San Francisco Symphony, which she joined as a second violinist in 1980, becoming its associate concertmaster in 1981. Sharing the first stand with Raymond Kobler, she played so “splendidly,” critic Robert Commanday wrote in the San Francisco Examiner in 1988, that she struck observers “as the stronger of the two, and often the real leader of the section.”

In a decision that Commanday described as “not very defensible,” the San Francisco Symphony’s music director, Herbert Blomstedt, stuck with his man, even after it became clear that the cost would be Ms. Fleezanis’s departure. She accepted the overtures of Blomstedt’s predecessor, Edo de Waart, who was eager to bring her to his new ensemble, the Minnesota Orchestra.

Hired as acting concertmaster in 1988, she was technically not the first woman to hold the full title of concertmaster at a major orchestra; by the time her position was made permanent early in 1989, Emmanuelle Boisvert had begun work as the concertmaster of the Detroit Symphony. But Ms. Fleezanis was a trailblazer at a time when the gender composition of American orchestras was starting to become more equitable.

With her frank personality and her palpable intensity onstage, she was in large part responsible for the resurgence of the Minnesota Orchestra, which came to be widely regarded as one of the finest in the nation early in Vanska’s tenure, not least for the crisp precision and risk-taking sensibility of its strings. Like its concertmaster, the orchestra performed “with the kind of furious finesse that every composer prays for,” critic Alex Ross wrote in The New Yorker in 2005.

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“Early in my career, I was told, ‘If you play like that in every concert, you’ll burn out,’ but I knew that wasn’t right,” Ms. Fleezanis said when she left the orchestra to become a professor at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music in 2009. “Playing with full commitment gives back: It revitalizes me.”

Jorja Kay Fleezanis was born March 19, 1952, in Detroit. She was the younger of Parios and Kay Fleezanis’s two children. Her parents, who were Greek immigrants, were not musicians but loved music.

She began learning violin at age 8, studying in Detroit with Ara Zerounian and Mischa Mischakoff, former concertmaster of Arturo Toscanini’s NBC Symphony. She later attended the Cleveland Institute of Music, where she played for the young James Levine in his University Circle Orchestra, and the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.

It was still rare for women to be admitted to major orchestras when Ms. Fleezanis finished her studies. The Chicago Symphony’s music director, Georg Solti, required her to win three separate auditions and to play concerts under his eye before he was willing to hire a “girl,” as he called her, for his second violin section in 1975. Her kinetic style did not match the staid demeanor of her colleagues, though, and she was all but alone among men. She left after a single season.

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“A solid musician with a big sound and surprising reserves of energy,” as The Cincinnati Enquirer described her in 1976, Ms. Fleezanis returned to Ohio to lead the newly formed Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra. There she founded the Trio d’Accordo, a string trio. She later started the FOG Trio with cellist Michael Grebanier and pianist Garrick Ohlsson. An inspirational pedagogue, she held posts at the San Francisco Conservatory, the University of Minnesota, and a variety of other institutions. She retired from the Jacobs School in 2020.

While at the San Francisco Symphony, Ms. Fleezanis met Michael Steinberg, a former critic for The Boston Globe who was that orchestra’s publications director and artistic adviser. They married in 1983; he died in 2009. She leaves her brother, Nickolas.

In a 2009 conversation with Sam Bergman, a Minnesota Orchestra violist, Ms. Fleezanis said her husband had stoked her interest in unusual and new works. She recorded Beethoven’s Violin Sonatas, but she also recorded pieces by Stefan Wolpe and Aaron Jay Kernis. Nicholas Maw wrote a sonata for her, and John Tavener made her the “Divine Eros” in his vast, mystical “Ikon of Eros,” written for the Minnesota Orchestra’s centennial in 2002. After her husband’s death, she started a commissioning fund in their joint names.

“There is a huge body of genius out there,” Ms. Fleezanis told Bergman, reflecting on the repertoire as she found it. “It’s just a question of how limited you want to choose to be.”

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