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by Sam Bergman
My grandmother, Margaret Terry Trowbridge, was 82 when I moved from Alabama to Minneapolis in February 2000 to join the mighty Minnesota Orchestra. A native Minnesotan and lifelong fan of classical music, she could not have been more proud for one of her grandkids to be joining the ranks at Orchestra Hall. I was pretty darn proud, myself, and couldn’t wait to welcome my grandma in person at one of the Thursday morning concerts she’d been attending for years.
But in one of those cruel twists that life throws at us when we least expect it, she never got the chance to watch me play as a member of the ensemble she had loved for so many decades. In the same week that I had been auditioning for my position in the orchestra in November 1999, my mother and her siblings had confirmed what they had suspected for some time: my grandmother was entering the middle stages of Alzheimer’s, a baffling, infuriating disease that would eventually rob her of her ability to communicate, to identify her surroundings, and even to recognize the people she loved most.
With our family scattered across the country, the decision was quickly made to move her to a care facility out East, where my mother would be nearby to visit regularly and attend to her increasing needs. It was a painful transition for my grandmother. Even before the disease tightened its grip, she had a hard time remembering where she was. More than once in those first months she spent in southeastern Pennsylvania, she angrily confronted my mother for not having yet taken her to hear me play with the Minnesota Orchestra, unaware that we were now more than 1,200 miles apart.
And yet, music continued to be her sustenance, even as her mind betrayed her. My mother brought her a steady supply of the music she loved best, and listened as she reminisced about the many live concerts she’d heard recently. But these stories weren’t about trips to Orchestra Hall. They were about a smiling, gracious violinist who had dropped in regularly to play for the residents of her retirement community in Minnesota and talk to them about music and life and whatever else they wanted.
These were stories about Jorja Fleezanis.
Jorja, as longtime fans of the orchestra will know, was our Concertmaster from 1989-2009, and a towering figure in the world of classical music. She was a pioneer – one of the first women to fight her way to the highest-ranking post an orchestral musician can achieve – and a beloved presence for our audience and community. A dynamic speaker as well as an electrifying violinist, she was the face and voice of the Minnesota Orchestra across the span of two decades and three music directors. She retired from us at a relatively young age in 2009, and spends much of her time these days teaching the next generation of great musicians at Indiana University.
I don’t know how many times Jorja made the trek to my grandmother’s retirement community in Eden Prairie in those years before I joined the orchestra. But I know that it was a lot, and I know how much those visits meant to a woman who, while never a musician herself, had made certain that I hauled out my pint-sized violin at every family gathering I attended as a child. I know that, even as her condition worsened and she became less sure of the world around her, my grandmother remembered Jorja’s visits with vivid clarity. (She even began to embellish them: a couple of years after the move, my mother overheard her proudly telling another resident of her Pennsylvania home that she had just recently been a violin student of the great Jorja Fleezanis, and what do you think about that? Being a Pennsylvanian, the other resident had no idea who my grandmother was talking about, but that didn’t diminish her pride and enthusiasm in the slightest.)
We all know the effect that music can have on us as people, but we rarely consider the profound impact that a single musician can make. Jorja is just one among many musicians who make a point of reaching out to the wider community, but her generosity of spirit, her willingness not only to perform but to listen – to connect herself fully to the people around her – will always stay with me.
My grandmother passed away quietly on March 16, 2006. I don’t know how many members of our family she could have recognized in those final hours. But I know for a fact that she never forgot the gift of music and companionship given to her by the woman who stood proudly at the front of our stage for 20 years.
Sam Bergman is a violist with the Minnesota Orchestra. This essay originally appeared on the Minnesota Orchestra website.