Elena Urioste is enjoying an Illinois moment. The New York-based violinist, a rising star in the classical music world, has made the Land of Lincoln her second home this year.
In late June, she performed an outdoor concert with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, under Cristian Macelaru, and she returns Nov. 7-8 for a subscription-series program at Orchestra Hall. Leading up to those performances, she will be a soloist Oct. 25 in Beethoven’s Triple Concerto with the Heartland Festival Orchestra in Washington, Ill., and then appear as a member of a new piano trio on Nov. 1 at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park and on Nov. 2 at Eureka College in central Illinois.
“I’m going to be a good Midwestern girl for a couple of weeks,” Urioste said with a laugh. It’s the kind of upbeat outlook she brings to everything she does. In fact, asked if she is satisfied with her rising career, she 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 spotlighted Urioste 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, she spent much of this summer in England for engagements that either came directly or indirectly from that program.
But Urioste carved out time on June 28 to be in the United States for her first return CSO appearance since her debut concerts with the ensemble in April 2010. (“That’s a date I remember,” she said.) She appeared in the third of the CSO’s three concerts at the Morton Arboretum, in a program that served as kind of a teaser for her November subscription concerts at Orchestra Hall with the same guest conductor, Cristian Macelaru. “It was an interesting experience, as outdoor concerts usually are,” she said. “Acoustically, many things are up for grabs, and it was a particularly hot evening, but all things considered, I think it went OK.” But she admits that she will be glad to be indoors in “slightly more traditional and hospitable conditions” for her November CSO performances.
A native of Hartford, Conn., Urioste, 28, is of Mexican, Italian, Russian and Hungarian descent, with her Basque last name coming from her family’s Latin ancestors. She moved to a Philadelphia suburb with her family when she was 5 years old and lived there until she moved into the city when she enrolled 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 was her participation in the annual Sphinx Competition, which encourages the development of young African-American and Latino musicians. She first took part in the contest 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, at 20, she won the senior division, a victory that secured her professional management by an agent who was in the audience — another key career milestone.
While Sphinx is definitely a competition, it’s a really special thing,” she said. “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.”
English connections seem to surround Urioste. Along with performing regularly in Great Britain, she also has an affinity for the country’s music. Her CSO debut came on all-English program that featured her in Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, a work which 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 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.”
Before the Morton Arboretum concert with the CSO, she returned June 20 to the Manchester-based BBC Philharmonic for a recording that featured Max Bruch’s Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 26. She acknowledges that the concerto, which she will perform again in November with the CSO, is programmed so often that it can unfairly 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 work, 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.”
Adding to Urioste’s Illinois moment, the Ravinia Festival announced in early September that her new piano trio, called simply the Brown-Urioste-Canellakis Trio, would make one of its first appearances Nov. 1 as part of the festival’s year-round BGH Classics series in Bennett Gordon Hall. All three members — Urioste, cellist Nicholas Canellakis and pianist Michael Brown — were 2009 fellows at the Steans Music Institute, Ravinia’s prestigious summer training program.
Both Urioste and Canellakis present recitals with Brown; she attended Curtis with Cannellakis and the two have performed together off and on since. Adding one more connection, Brown and Canellakis host “Conversations With Nick Canellakis” — a series of classical-themed comic YouTube videos patterned after the well-known online show, “Between Two Ferns With Zach Galifianakis.” The two musicians have “interviewed” such classical notables as the Emerson String Quartet, conductor Osmo Vänskä and cellist Alisa Weilerstein.
The three friends have thought for a while that performing together as a trio would make sense, Urioste said, but it was at the urging of their manager that they actually went ahead with the idea. “We all love the idea of having a semi-regular trio,” she said. “We’ll play together and rehearse as our schedules can afford, as we all have individual things going on, but we were quite excited about the prospects.”
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic for the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based writer.
VIDEO: American violinist Elena Urioste performs Amy Beach’s Romance, with Michael Brown at the piano, via YouTube.