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Young and in love (with the violin)
Elena Urioste is just 23, but music has always been her calling
Violinist Elena Urioste says she wasn't the most popular kid in school: "As if my huge plastic glasses weren't enough, I was also this gifted–program student who also played classical music. So yeah, I was really a prize."

With a big thumbs up from Symphony magazine, which put her on its cover and called her “an emerging artist to watch,” violinist Elena Urioste had a pretty good 2009.

This year, things will only get better.

The Philadelphia native is only 23 years old, and she’s guest–soloed with virtually all the major orchestras in the United States. She’s been the featured artist at several European festivals, and was recently named a London Music Master.

In 2007, Urioste took first prize at the prestigious Sion International Violin Competition.

Critics have been falling all over themselves to attach superlatives to her playing – the most recent include “luminous,” “passionate,” “lush,” “warm” and that always–welcome old standby, “virtuosic.”

Urioste made her Carnegie Hall debut in 2004 (she was 18) and performed at Lincoln Center’s famed Alice Tully Hall last year.

She performs in a Savannah Concert Association–sponsored recital, accompanied by pianist Jonathan Coombs, Saturday, Jan. 9 at the Lucas Theatre.

I understand you were attracted to the violin at an extremely young age?

Elena Urioste: My parents told me this is what happened. I was 2 years old, and an avid fan of Sesame Street, and Itzhak Perlman was on one particular episode, playing violin. I saw it and decided “I want to do that.” Which I’m sure came as a surprise to my parents, because while they loved music very much, they themselves are not musicians.

I was fortunate enough to go to a public school that had a pretty solid string program, so I began lessons when I was 5, in kindergarten.

So you’ve been disciplined and practicing for 18 years. Did that make you the weird kid in school?

Elena Urioste: Oh, definitely. As if my huge plastic glasses weren’t enough, I was also this gifted–program student who also played classical music. So yeah, I was really a prize.

I wasn’t really made fun of, but I was definitely met with a lot of confusion. Whenever I would be asked to go and play after school, I’d have to be like “Well, I have to practice.” My friends would say “Just practice tomorrow.” And I’d be like “I have to practice then, too.” The concept of doing something I enjoyed, regularly, and had from such a young age, was maybe not the most comprehensible to them.

You first played with a symphony at 13. Was that intimidating – or were you a cocky kid?

Elena Urioste: God, no, I was terrified. My first–ever solo with orchestra, when I was 13, was with the Ocean City Pops from Ocean City, New Jersey. And they have been so wonderful to me over the years. My first big high–profile time was with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and I can’t tell you how nervous I was. I couldn’t sleep the night before – my mom had to come in and sit with me until I fell asleep.

When does that go away?

Elena Urioste: I’m still waiting! I get really nervous, still, and it doesn’t really seem to be receding. I’ve more learned to deal with it over the years, rather than trying to fight it.

If at any point you think “I’ve made it, I’m at the top now,” that sort of complacency will definitely show in your playing. And that, to me, would be extremely unattractive.

But you’re not out there at youth competitions any more, trying to beat a bunch of other kid violinists ...

Elena Urioste: It’s such a selective and very difficult field that, in a way – not that this is what I necessarily what I would like to be thinking about when I’m onstage, but especially if there are other musicians in the audience, you kind of feel like “I really hope I don’t suck, because that would be really embarrassing.” And they’re going to think “Well, why is she up there, and why am I not?”

So there’s always a little bit of that ... not competition, but you have to be on your game at all times. At least that’s how I feel. You never know who’s going to be in the audience, basically.

Tell me about Sphinx, with which you’ve been involved for a few years.

Elena Urioste: Sphinx is an organization whose mission is to diversify classical music.
As you probably have noticed at some point over the years, there isn’t a whole lot of African American and Hispanic participation. On stages, in the audiences, just in the field in general. Their mission is to bring it to all demographics of people.

So they have a competition every year, which I have participated in and won twice. The winners take on a sort of ambassador role, and they do a ton of outreach in schools. They have a ton of programs for less–advantaged kids, and a summer music institute for teenagers. They’re absolutely amazing, and I feel exceptionally lucky to be a part of it. They have opened so many doors for me.

What does it mean to be a London Music Master?

Elena Urioste: That was sort of a surprise for me. Someone I had met through Sphinx encouraged me to apply. It’s a new award; I guess it will be given to three laureates every three years. I had to send in an application, a written statement, and a DVD of certain things that I happened to have.

I had an interview, and a couple days later I got a call that said I was one of the three winners. I was like, Really? Are you sure?

That is so incredibly amazing as well. As a result, the three of us have already had our Wigmore Hall debuts, and I’ll be playing with the London Philharmonic as part of an education concert in June. And I receive mentorship from a team of people at the SouthBank Centre, so I get to sort of see what the London arts scene is like.

Which is an incredible opportunity. I’ve always wanted to play in Europe more, and I feel like this will be very productive.

You’re so young, I assume you like some popular music and movies.

Elena Urioste: Yeah! I like Radiohead, I love Feist, Michael Jackson, Sufjan Stevens. I’m looking at my iPod now. I’m kind of all over. But I think it’s safe to say I listen to non–classical music more than classical.

I’m obsessed with this movie I saw a couple months ago called Synecdoche, New York. It’s Charlie Kaufman’s latest movie, and I believe his directorial debut. I can’t get it out of my head. It’s really profoundly sad, but very interesting and thought–provoking.

Tell me about the program you’ll play in Savannah.

Elena Urioste: It is – and my pianist will back me up – a powerhouse of a program. Perhaps even more for him than for me! Yeah, it’s a tour de force.

We’re doing the Schubert Rondo Brilliante, which is really tricky and awkward for both of us. It’s a very, very charming piece. A Strauss sonata, which to my knowledge isn’t really heard that much – I think most pianists aren’t willing to put forth that immense effort for a collaborative work. But it is one of the most beautiful things written for violin and piano. It is so gorgeous, so romantic.

Then we’re doing the Prokofiev F minor sonata, which totally switches gears and is really haunting and dark. And rather depressing, sort of. Well, it has a lot of different things. We read somewhere that he actually programmed a movement of it at his own funeral. It’s famous for a section called The Wind Over the Graveyard, which really does sound like wind rustling through a graveyard!

And then we’re finishing with a little flashy thing, Carmen Fantasie by Hubay. Which is actually not so commonly heard, that particular arrangement of it. But it’s my favorite. It’s very fun to play. And Jon gets to relax

Elena Urioste

Where: Lucas Theatre, 32 Abercorn St.

When: At 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 9

Tickets: $12.50–$35


Artist’s Web site: