Violinist Elena Urioste’s Desert Island Picks
By Lou Fancher
Ask American violinist Elena Urioste with whom she’d most like to be stranded on a desert island and the answer — Mahler — arrives swifter than the most rapid passage of a Paganini showpiece.
“One day I would love to have the opportunity to sit in a great orchestra to play Mahler's Ninth Symphony. It is one of my desert island pieces,” she writes in an email sent between performances while on tour in Germany.
Of course, she’d not be “alone” with an orchestra along, but even minus Mahler and fellow musicians, it’s likely her “do-it-to-the-best-of-my-ability” spirit and similar lessons learned from her parents would result in the sound of music.
Urioste, a native of Hartford, CT, who grew up primarily in a suburb near Philadelphia, appears Dec. 9-10 with the San Francisco Symphony, performing Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending and “Winter” from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.
“The Lark Ascending is a world of flutters, chirps, almost hymn-like purity, and moments of the most glorious soaring imaginable,” Urioste says. About “Winter” she says, “Nature is so clearly represented in this music that it would be impossible not to be inspired to explore a huge range of sounds and colors.”
A poetic relationship with music is perhaps an indication of skill that is hard-won. Just because Urioste’s masterful ability to “soar” through devilishly difficult passages in a Brahms sonata or plunder the polyrhythmic complexities of an Alfred Schnittke composition has won Urioste appearances with premier orchestras worldwide and awards including first prize in the Sion International Violin Competition doesn’t mean sweat was not involved.
“I wasn't a particularly talented young violinist, technically speaking,” she says. “I am grateful for a healthy, relatively normal, public school upbringing, and the advice from my parents that if I was going to bother doing something, I might as well do it to the best of my ability.”
Beyond the pinpoint focus Urioste as a young person aimed at everything from algebra to art to scales and arpeggios lies an innate affinity for music. An awareness of the larger world that infuses her sophisticated understanding — she captures especially the essence of less bombastic passages in work she performs, arguably better than most — is perhaps a product of a childhood without pushy parents. Allowed to find her path, the steps taken are owned by Urioste. A certain self-confidence from having worked hard to achieve success solidifies the act of picking up her Nicolas Kittel bow and Alessandro Gagliano violin.
And when performance nerves jostle her otherwise calm demeanor, Urioste’s devotion to Bikram yoga is well-documented. The technique involves 26 postures and breathing exercises conducted for 90 minutes in a room heated to 105 degrees Fahrenheit. Some people say it is equivalent to torture; others swear it is the key to their survival. For Urioste, it is both. “After enduring 90 minutes in a hot room, pretty much any other scenario feels comparatively easy. Whenever I'm having a particularly thorny moment onstage, I just quickly remind myself that I have made it through worse.”
Looking beyond the externals of disciplining the body and mind or bringing awareness to equal weight distribution on two feet, Bikram’s intricacies play directly into a violinist’s technique. A selection of the postures require firmly grasping a foot, ankle, knee, or other body part with all 10 fingers. “There's no doubt that this has strengthened both of my hands, particularly my left hand. I feel I can drop each finger onto the fingerboard with great resilience and relaxation as well as power,” she says.
Yoga’s emphasis on releasing tension in joints and reducing superfluous contraction in muscles counters the demands placed on 21st-century musicians. Touring disrupts physical fitness routines, but yoga classes in a particular style can be found in almost any country and in cities of any size. The varied repertoire that no longer allows a performer to bask only in Bach or Beethoven, but instead to leap from classical to contemporary compositions, exacts less of a toll on a performer well-versed in kinesthetically efficient movement. Yoga’s emphasis on inhaling and exhaling deeply, Urioste says “clears my head, settles my thumping heart, and makes my bow feel grounded yet radiant.”
Collaborating for six years with pianist and composer Michael Brown, with whom Urioste is about to release a new recording, has provided similarly consistent rewards. “The first time I heard Michael perform, I was immediately attracted to the sweetness and sensitivity of his sound. I knew instantly that I wanted to play with him.” Reading together Gabriel Faure’s Violin Sonata, Urioste recalls that their instincts were immediately complimentary. “We take the music seriously but not ourselves, and we spend much of our rehearsals laughing. We're getting to an exciting point in our musical relationship where complete trust is possible onstage. We feel free to take risks in performance and know that [we’ll] be in complete synchronicity.”
Their debut album will include among others, works by Ravel, Strauss and Brown’s Echoes of Byzantium, after Yeats, perhaps another piece Urioste would perform if stranded on a desert island with only her violin as company. Either that, or Brahms G Major Sonata, a work she hopes will one day “actually come out sounding like how I hear it in my mind.”