Latina violinist embarks on solo career

Former winner Elena Urioste to solo at Sphinx competition
BY MARK STRYKER • FREE PRESS MUSIC WRITER • January 25, 2009

At 22, violinist Elena Urioste is still studying at the Juilliard School, but she's on a fast track. With professional management behind her, she has embarked on a solo career. This week Urioste returns to Detroit for the 12th annual Sphinx Competition for young African-American and Latino string players, the launching pad for her success.

Urioste won the Sphinx junior division in 2003 and the senior division in 2007. At this year's event, she'll team up with another former Sphinx winner, Melissa White, at next Sunday's Finals Concert. The pair will perform part of Prokofiev's Sonata for Two Violins.

The Sphinx competition, founded by MacArthur fellow Aaron Dworkin, has become a signature national event for its efforts to promote minorities in classical music. The competition doles out more than $100,000 annually in prizes, scholarships and performance opportunities.

Urioste, raised near Philadelphia and of Hispanic descent, is one of Sphinx's biggest success stories. She won the Sion International Violin Competition in Switzerland in 2007, landed on the cover of Symphony Magazine in 2008 as young artist to watch and is working her way up the ladder in 2009 with upcoming professional engagements with the New Mexico Symphony, the Atlanta Symphony and others. She spoke last week from Manhattan.

QUESTION: What does it mean to you to return to the Sphinx Competition as a soloist?

ANSWER: It's a huge honor. It's also really fun because inevitably the competition week -- really any amalgamation of Sphinx people -- is like a party. I know so many of the competitors and other Sphinx people that it's like a family reunion.

It's a unique competition in that sense. They really encourage this sense of community. There are always these events planned and dinners. You meet someone once at the competition or one of the Carnegie Hall galas, and the next time you see them, everyone's hugging.

Q: What was it like to win at 16?

A: The competition happened to fall a week and a half before my college auditions. I didn't have a feel for Sphinx at that point, and I was understandably very, very stressed, particularly about the auditions. I thought I should be at home practicing.

But then when I got to the competition, the stress completely melted away. Everyone I met was so friendly. There's a stigma associated with competitions that the competitors are very unfriendly to one another or at the least unsocial. But I remember thinking that it was just like an amazing vacation. ...

At the same time, I got to play for the judges, and one of them gave me a lesson and I played at a master class. Winning was just sort of a bonus.

Q: Was there a special feeling for you to be surrounded by an orchestra comprised of only minority musicians?

A: Definitely. I was very much taken by surprise by that at the first competition. I had never thought of myself as a Hispanic violinist and sort of thought that idea was silly. But as soon as I got to the competition and looked around and saw people who looked like me -- it's not every day you see an all African-American and Hispanic orchestra in classical music -- it took my breath away. I can't explain it. I felt very connected with these people. I felt proud and a new responsibility.

Q: How influential has Sphinx been in the relatively fast start to your career?

A: Oh my gosh, if it weren't for Sphinx I would be nowhere. I had always known I wanted to be a soloist ever since I was 6 years old. Soon after I began playing the violin, I had these elaborate fantasies of waltzing out on stage in pretty dresses and being in front of an orchestra. Sphinx gave me my first steady taste of what it would be like, throwing me out in front of huge orchestras.

My first concert for Sphinx was with the Atlanta Symphony. I said to myself, "You've got to be kidding me! They can't start me off slow?" They threw me in the pool, and I adored it.

And if it weren't for the 2007 competition, I wouldn't have met my manager. She happened to be in the audience, and she approached me at the reception afterward.

Q: What made you want to play violin in the first place?

A: "Sesame Street." When I was 2 years old, I saw Itzhak Perlman on the show playing his violin I believe with Elmo. After that I began harassing my parents for a violin.

Q: Have you met Itzhak?

A: I occasionally play in the Iris Chamber Orchestra in Memphis, Tenn., and the first concert I was asked to do, Perlman was the soloist. I had never met him. During the concert, I lost it and broke down crying. I was thinking to myself, "If it weren't for this man, I wouldn't be here at all, and now he's standing 5 feet away from me." Afterward, I tearily went up to shake his hand, and I couldn't even get the words out. But he signed my copy of the Beethoven Violin Concerto.

Q: A lot of young violinists are chasing the same dream of becoming a soloist. Not all of you will make it. Do you think about that?

A: I think about it, but I don't dwell on it. You can only control what you do. I feel like so much of it is luck and being in the right place at the right time, but if opportunity falls into your lap and you're not prepared, then you have no one to blame but yourself.

All you can do in this profession is practice and be prepared and be professional.

Contact MARK STRYKER at mstryker@freepress.com.

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