Elena Urioste brings an upbeat outlook to everything she does. If asked whether she’s satisfied with her rising career, the violinist unexpectedly answers no, because that descriptor undersells her feelings. “ ‘Satisfied’ sounds complacent,” she said in her frank way. “I’m so grateful for everything, and, yeah, I want to continue to explore the world via music. And why not be upbeat about that? It’s a pretty lucky life to have.”
Symphony magazine showcased Urioste, now 28, and five other emerging musicians on the cover of its January-February issue in 2008. In 2012, she was named a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist, a prestigious two-year appointment that comes with studio recordings, concerts with various BBC orchestras and appearances at several music festivals. Indeed, much of her summer will be spent in England for engagements that either came directly or indirectly from that program.
But Urioste has carved out time on June 28 to be in the United States for her first return appearance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since her CSO debut in April 2010. (“That’s a date I remember,” she said.) She will appear as soloist in Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 for the third of the CSO’s three concerts at the Morton Arboretum, in a program that will serve as kind of a teaser for her November subscription concerts at Symphony Center.
The Morton engagement will mark her first time performing in an outdoor setting. “I’m very much looking forward to that,” she said. “I have to imagine that it will smell quite nice.” But other than bringing an extra handkerchief and tightening her strings a bit more because of the heat, she does not expect to do anything different than she would for an indoor concert. “I always think it is funny when people go and they insist on trying out a space for a million hours before the concert, and then they play very much like they always play,” she said.
A native of Hartford, Conn., she moved to a Philadelphia suburb with her family when she was 5 years old and lived there until she moved into the city to enroll at the Curtis Institute of Music after high school. As a 2-year-old, she became intrigued with the violin when saw Itzhak Perlman playing his instrument and chatting with Elmo on “Sesame Street.” “According to my parents,” she said, “I was just fascinated by it and immediately started badgering them to let me play. Seeing as how I was 2 years old and they were not musical, they thought that was slightly odd behavior and had me wait.”
But she was persistent, and she began a Suzuki violin program in kindergarten when she was 5 and shifted to private lessons soon thereafter. “I have to say that I wasn’t a prodigiously talented child, at least not technically speaking,” Urioste said. “It was pretty clear to people, that I loved music and I was obsessed with it and I wanted so badly to be a violinist. But I wasn’t playing the Paganini Concerto at age 8 and making jaws drop to the floor. I progressed slowly and methodically but very persistently.”
One of the first milestones in what would eventually evolve into a professional musical career came when she was 13 and performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra as the winner in the children’s division of an annual student competition. “It was so exciting,” she said. “It was at the Academy of Music, which I still think is one of the most beautiful halls in the world visually. It has these gorgeous painted ceilings and a gigantic, lavish chandelier and everything is very Old-World looking and luxurious. So it was everything I had ever dreamed on in terms of a solo concert experience, and it definitely whetted my appetite for such endeavors.”
Providing a big boost to Urioste’s career aspirations was her involvement in the annual competition sponsored by the Sphinx Organization, which encourages the development of young African-American and Latino musicians. (Urioste is of Mexican, Italian, Russian and Hungarian descent, with her Basque last name coming from the Latino side of her family.) Urioste first took part in the competition when she was 16, winning the junior division, with one of the prizes being a solo performance with Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. “That was overwhelming but also everything I could have ever wanted,” she said. “That really sealed the deal for me. ‘Yeah, this is what I want to be doing.’ ”
In 2007, she achieved another career milestone when she won the senior division, a victory that secured her professional management by an agent who was in the audience.
“While Sphinx is definitely a competition,” she said, “it’s a really special thing. It’s not about who can play the fastest or make the fewest mistakes. It’s really about connecting with the audience and being an ambassador for classical music to all communities in America and the world. The people who go through Sphinx have something very human and very warm to offer, and I feel very lucky to be part of that community.”
Meanwhile, she might be the only touring classical artist in the world with a page with on her website devoted to extolling the personal and professional benefits of yoga. Indeed, she conducted this interview right after returning from a yoga class in Sarasota, Fla., where she was performing. Urioste finds it “shocking” that more musicians don’t pursue yoga.
“For me,” she said, “I didn’t really figure out the most physically efficient ways of practicing and playing my instrument until quite recently, and yoga has really conditioned my body so as to make it much more responsive to instructions. So if a command comes from my brain, that command now is able to flow much more freely to my fingers instead of just getting stuck in a tight shoulder or a tight forearm. I feel much more malleable and receptive to information, and I just feel looser, so definitely it has to affect your playing. My blood flow is better. My breathing is better. My balance is better.”
English connections seem to surround Urioste. In addition to performing a great deal in Great Britain, she also has an affinity for that nation’s music. She debuted with the CSO on all-English program that featured her in Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, a work that the composer re-scored for violin and orchestra in 1920. She is also a fan of the violin concertos by Edward Elgar and Benjamin Britten. “I really like British music,” she said. “I don’t know how I began feeling so connected to it, but something in British writing — I just find it really intoxicating. There are so many secrets and so much nostalgia. I find much of the repertoire very touching.”
Since the end of 2013, she has had five engagements with the Manchester-based BBC Philharmonic, and on June 20 she will rejoin the ensemble for a recording that will feature Bruch’s Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 26, just a week before she performs it at the Morton Arboretum. She will reprise the work for her CSO concerts in November. She acknowledges that the concerto is so often performed that it can be taken for granted. “It’s an incredibly beautiful piece,” she said. “It’s very sincere. It’s very romantic. It’s touching, and I think it should be treated with as much respect as any other big violin concerto.”
Rather than consciously trying to put a distinctive stamp on the piece, she wants to simply try and be as true as possible to what Bruch wrote. “I’m inherently against the idea,” she said, “of doing something different just to say you are doing something different in general and not just with this piece. It’s a musician’s duty to do what’s on the page — what the composer specifically intended, and if it happens to be different from everyone else, then that’s great.”
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic for the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based writer.
VIDEO: Elena Urioste performs Mendelssohn’s Violin Concert in E Minor, with the Philadelphia Chamber Orchestra (via YouTube).