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Caeli Smith

A Conversation with Elena Urioste

July 6, 2007 at 5:32 PM

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[This column originally appeared in The Roving Report, Vol. 2.]

Violinist Elena Urioste is going places -- literally! Next week she's going to the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C.; last week it was the Boston Pops; and then the Atlanta Symphony in late July and the Detroit Symphony in August. And that's just for starters, thanks to her winning First Place in the Senior Division of this year's Sphinx Competition in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Sphinx, which was founded in 1997, is a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting young black and Latino classical musicians.

As an eleventh grader, Elena, who is of Mexican and Basque descent, was First Prize Laureate in the Junior Division; shortly after, she entered Philadelphia's prestigious Curtis Institute of Music one year early. Now 21, Elena is poised at the beginning of a great career. I caught up with her for an interview after her orchestra rehearsal one beautiful spring evening in Philadelphia.


Caeli: Tell us a little about your involvement with the competition.

Elena: I was first introduced to Sphinx when I won the Junior Division back in 2003, and I've maintained close contact with them ever since. I had a lot of performance opportunities as a result, and I was invited to participate in two of their gala concerts.

The competition itself is such a positive, nurturing environment. You stay in a hotel in Ann Arbor with all the other kids, and at the opening dinner we all introduce ourselves. Everyone's so supportive, not like at some competitions when we're all looking out only for ourselves. The members of the Sphinx Symphony who mentor us are so warm and caring. It's a fabulous experience! One thing I can say, though -- they're very big on punctuality. You have to be at meals and gatherings on time.

Caeli: I've heard that Sphinx does a lot of cultural outreach.

Elena: Cultural leadership is a gigantic part of Sphinx and I can't express how much I love doing this. The best part is bringing classical music to people who wouldn't be exposed to it otherwise. We might do as many as five school outreach sessions in a day. It's fantastic! You might think the kids were going to be bored or restless, but I have had nothing but positive experiences at these sessions. They are my favorite memories from my Sphinx affiliations.

For example, in Baltimore -- I remember it so clearly -- we were visiting a dilapidated elementary school in a challenged neighborhood and I asked my usual, "How many kids here play an instrument?" A little girl about seven or eight years old raised her hand and said, "I used to play violin but I don't anymore." She was very attentive during the session, and at the end she came up and threw her arms around me. She said, "I'm going to ask my mom if I can play the violin again!"

Caeli: Wow!

Elena: I'm aware that, when I solo with a symphony, the regular concertgoers are already familiar with the Tchaikovsky concerto and they're just coming to check out the new kid -- me. I'm not changing anything in their lives at that moment. But if I can make a real difference in one child's life, that's more important than any big concert I might do.

Caeli: You're living every young musician's dream -- winning national competitions and soloing with major orchestras. And entering Curtis at a young age. Tell us about your experience there.

Elena: I'm from Philadelphia, so I grew up going to concerts at Curtis, hearing those amazing musicians and knowing deep down that's where I wanted to go. But being here has more than exceeded my expectations. It's the most loving, nurturing environment. It's like a family. Which can be irritating -- everyone knows everyone else's business! But I love going to a small school.

My primary teacher, Joseph Silverstein, has more than fulfilled my expectations. Musically, he's a god. He's totally my idol and it's surreal to hear him play, he's such a master. And amazingly, he's gotten to know me as a person, we have such a solid relationship. I never expected that. I've also learned so much from guest artists, from my orchestra and chamber experiences, and from the other students. I have to say, it's very humbling to be around so many talented students.

When I first arrived, I remember sitting down in the last chair of the second violins -- I had never actually played in symphonic orchestra before. Everyone else knew so much, intellectually and musically. I was terrified of the conductor. I knew I would have to work my butt off and soak up what everyone has to offer.

It's hard work -- but it's not all work. For example, today no one wanted to be inside practicing because the weather finally warmed up and it was so beautiful. So most of us spent the whole day in Rittenhouse Square lying on the grass in the sun and eating stuff! We know how to have fun.

Caeli: Tell me, do you still eat bananas to calm your nerves?

Elena: I'll tell you a secret. I've never liked bananas. So I've stopped doing that. Now before a big audition or concert I try and have a routine: practice in the morning, take a big nap, work out, shower, and get ready. I've learned that it's best to try not to stray too far from what I'd do on an ordinary day. I used to get all fixated on doing everything perfectly on the day of a big performance. You know, "the PERFECT shower"! Now I tell myself that, yes, the concert day is a special day, but if I convince myself it's just a regular day I don't psyche myself out as much. I don't go to bed at 9 PM the night before because I won't be able to sleep anyway. I've learned that the nerves will kick in all by themselves. I have considerable nerves, always have, and they're not going anywhere, so I've come to terms with that. I just deal with it.

Caeli: Sounds like you've been dealing pretty well, even without bananas.

Elena: Life is exciting now! I'm starting to be on the edge of big stuff.

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on July 6, 2007 at 7:39 PM
Good luck! Wonderful photo, and left fist that could break my jaw, so I'm leaving now.
From Albert Justice
Posted on July 6, 2007 at 8:55 PM
Elena, you've seen the pearl. Keep focused on it and best wishes.
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on July 7, 2007 at 5:29 AM
She's not talking. Maybe she had homework.
From Sydney Menees
Posted on July 7, 2007 at 5:01 PM
How coincidental! I'm seeing her play the Barber with the NSO next week.

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