Elena Urioste, violinist

Who or what inspired you to take up the violin, and pursue a career in music?

My earliest musical inspiration came from the television show Sesame Street: at the age of two, I saw Itzhak Perlman featured on an episode, chatting and playing his violin. I was instantly enamoured. Apparently I began pestering my parents for a violin immediately, and after three years they finally relented. I was fortunate enough to attend a public school that boasted a stringed instruments programme, and so I began Suzuki lessons in kindergarten at the age of five. Shortly thereafter, I began studying privately.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

First and foremost, I would be absolutely nowhere without the love and support of my parents. Only in recent years have I begun to fully appreciate what an enormous leap of faith they took by first allowing and then encouraging their child to pursue completely uncharted waters — not being musicians themselves — and I am so grateful that they chose to explore the unfamiliar terrain of the classical music world alongside me. In terms of musical influences, I have Mr. Perlman to thank for kicking off the whole operation, and I continue to admire his playing to this day. As a young violinist I was absolutely obsessed with David Oistrakh; in recent years I have favoured the intimacy and warmth of Fritz Kreisler, and if I had to pick one “desert island” violinist now, it would be the latter. In terms of advice and mentorship, I would list my teachers CJ Chang, David Cerone, and Joseph Silverstein as my most trusted sources of wisdom; without them, I would be a tangled mess of a violinist with big dreams but no idea how to translate desire into action. And, although I could list countless other people and organizations who have provided support along the way, I must mention the Sphinx Organization, whose annual competition gave me my first taste of the career I’d always dreamt of and continues to encourage and support dreams of a vibrant, fulfilling life in music.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

I am lucky: I’ve gotten to experience many of the scenarios I’d hoped for as a child, lusting after a career as a concert violinist. Trusting that I’ve landed where I am because I truly deserve it, however, has proven to be a much bigger challenge than I might have expected. I’m aware that I’ve had many advantages in life: an outgoing personality, a top-notch support system, and opportunities from renowned organizations; but I’ve never been able to fully escape the fear that people might think I’m a fraud, or that I’ve have squeaked through some loophole based on luck or superficial traits. Believing that luck is only a small part of the equation, and that without proper preparation, a great opportunity is a ultimately a dead end, has been a more difficult idea for me to wrap my mind around. Each day I strive to further not only my craft, but the deep-seated belief that I have earned what I’ve received, and that I am enough.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I’m not just saying this because of the timing, but I am extremely proud of Estrellita, my album of violin and piano miniatures with Tom Poster. Each of the pieces means something extremely special to each of us, and I feel that the synchronicity between me and Tom and our love for each work is palpable. I’m also really glad we didn’t edit out our audible breaths, as there is absolutely no reason to be embarrassed to be alive.

Other highlights: a performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto with the Richmond Symphony that I had a near-nervous breakdown beforehand but managed to power through anyway; a series of Lark Ascendings with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra where I was allowed to perform on the “ex-Vieuxtemps” Guarneri del Gesu; and a Beethoven Violin Concerto with a small orchestra in Maine hours after I learned of the death of my beloved teacher Joseph Silverstein.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I joke about this a lot — “I should only ever play slowly and quietly” — but the truth is that those moments of intimacy, romance, and secrets are and have always been my favorites in music. Pieces that have them in abundance: the Barber and Elgar Concertos (the latter of which is hardly only slow and quiet — it’s one of the most challenging in the violin repertoire, I think, but I love it to the moon and back anyway), Strauss’ impassioned Violin Sonata, Grieg’s second Violin Sonata, the luscious Amy Beach Romance, and a smattering of little encore pieces, most of which can be found on Estrellita. There’s a theme here, apparently: juicy!

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I make a short list of pieces I wish to play, and then hope that orchestras and presenters find them agreeable! However, I’m usually too eager to play to say no, even if a concerto is requested that isn’t on my list (with some hard exceptions, e.g. Paganini anything). As for recitals and chamber music programs, my partners and I try to curate programs that have a nice mix of pieces we love and some sort of over-arching theme, but I wouldn’t say I have a formula to programming — at least not a conscious one.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I still find the big hall at Carnegie hard to beat, and find it oddly comforting despite its prestige and size. You can just play the way you play and trust that your intentions will make it to the back of the hall — that’s how magical the acoustics are. Other favourites: Wigmore Hall for its glowing sound, Severance Hall for its wedding-cake decoration, and really any place where I can tell that the audience is having a good time. Those establishments usually serve alcohol.

Who are your favourite musicians?

The Guarneri Quartet, Nat King Cole, Fritz Kreisler, Radiohead, Artur Rubinstein, Frank Sinatra, Carlos Kleiber, Ella Fitzgerald, Joseph Silverstein, Björk, Richard Goode, Stevie Wonder…

What is your most memorable concert experience?

So many are memorable for different reasons, both good and bad. I would say the performances that listed in the “pride” category are all certainly memorable… then again, I have an eerily vivid memory, so I can recall nearly every concert I’ve ever given. I can tell you what I wore, which notes I bobbled, and what I ate afterwards.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Feeling fulfilled, wherever you have landed. Accepting gracefully that the life you’ve created may not look exactly like the life you envisioned decades ago, and lunching yourself as deeply and whole-heartedly as possible into whatever the task at hand may be. Remaining open to possibilities that you may not have considered, or that may not have existed in the past. Gratitude.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

While hard work, focus, and perseverance are definitely necessary qualities on the path to a successful life in music — whatever that means to you — equally, self-care, compassion, and rest are vital ingredients to a sustainable life and career. We often neglect the bodily, mental, and emotional care that should be the foundation of any musician, and assume that our fingers should bear the brunt of the work. We must address ourselves as whole entities: care for the entire body, expand our minds and nurture interest in other subjects, and practice kindness to ourselves and others. Drilling passages in the practice room will only get us so far; when our arms burn out and our minds feel overwhelmed or perhaps even bored, then what will we do?

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Someplace I cannot currently foresee. And/or in Vermont.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Being fully present in the moment, whatever it may entail.

What is your most treasured possession?

A bow that used to belong to Mr. Silverstein, and my grandfather’s ceramic change jar.


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