Chab Lathion

Elena Urioste began her lifetime of musicianship after seeing violinist Itzhak Perlman on "Sesame Street" when she was 2 years old.

Violinist Elena Urioste to perform in Davis

Published: Sunday, Apr. 28, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 6AANDE
Last Modified: Sunday, Apr. 28, 2013 - 7:34 am

Historically, musicians of color and female musicians were never well-represented in classical music.

As recently as 1987 you could have taken an inventory of any major U.S. orchestra and not found one musician of color holding a principal chair.

And soloists performing with those orchestras? Not a significantly different situation.

In the past two decades diversity has come to classical music. Blind auditions have resulted in more women and musicians of color joining the orchestral fold; musicians of color appear in the soloist spotlight.

One of the more elegant examples is violinist Elena Urioste. The 26-year-old of Mexican-Basque heritage has drawn strong reviews for her performances.

Urioste will perform a concert with pianist Gabriela Martinez, who hails from Venezuela. The May 5 performance will be at the Mondavi Center's Vanderhoef Studio Theatre.

The program includes three sonatas for violin and piano by Leoš Janácek, Achille-Claude Debussy and Beethoven. Urioste said they will also perform miniatures to be announced from the stage.

Urioste's résumé includes winning Switzerland's Sion International Violin Competition and receiving London Music Masters and Salon di Virtuosi career grants. She is also one of the most-noted winners of the Sphinx Medals of Excellence, which promote the careers of talented minority musicians.

Urioste made an acclaimed debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra at age 13.

Her musical evolution began much earlier. Her nonmusician parents have said she was first drawn to the violin at age 2, after seeing a "Sesame Street" episode featuring Itzhak Perlman.

"I vaguely recall Perlman playing the violin, though it was mostly my parents that remember the incident well," said Urioste via phone from New York City, where she lives.

"I thought it looked really cool, and there must have been some component to it where I thought what was happening was beautiful," said Urioste. "I had some sort of visceral reaction to it."

Her musical education began with Suzuki lessons, with her mother teaching her to read music. Lessons with a music teacher soon followed. By age 12, Urioste's musical prowess had developed to the point she was accepted into Temple University's top youth orchestra – a socially defining experience for her.

"It was my first experience playing with other people, and more importantly, it was a first opportunity for me to meet people who were like me," said Urioste. "In a big public school not many people can relate. So, socially, the youth orchestra was a terrific experience."

Then came her experience with the Philadelphia Orchestra, which led to Urioste studying with the orchestra's principal violinist, C.J. Chang, a year later.

Under Chang, her talent bloomed.

"He's an incredible teacher. Aside from all of the technical things he taught me, I sort of toughened up with him," Urioste said. "I learned how to hold it together in a really high-pressure situation. … He gave me a thicker skin. … He gave me a lot of general mentorship advice and taught me life lessons that I took with me as I went to music school and entered the profession at a higher level."

Urioste, who grew up in the Philadelphia area, attended the Curtis Institute, graduating in 2008. She attended Juilliard the following year.

"Having grown up in Philly, I went to a lot of the Curtis concerts. … It was my dream to go there. … It is extremely difficult to get in. So I felt like I lucked out, but I also had worked really hard," she said.

Undoubtedly, the organization in which Urioste has made the biggest impact is the Sphinx organization. Since its founding in 1996 by violinist and MacArthur fellow Aaron Dworkin, it has distributed more than $1 million in prize money and scholarships to promising classical musicians of color.

"Elena is someone who generates a great deal of energy about what she does, and she promotes the value of music across the board," said Dworkin's wife, Afa Sadykhly Dworkin, vice president of programming and artistic director of Sphinx.

Urioste won the top junior category award in 2003 and returned in 2007 to win the senior division.

"When watching her perform, the first thing running through my mind was the incredible growth and maturity that she developed over the years," Dworkin said. "For someone with that level of talent and ability, it would be really easy to rest on one's laurels. But her performances now are so much more convincing and sophisticated."

Urioste recently joined the Sphinx organization as a juror in its junior- and senior-level competitions.

So where does Urioste want to take her young and promising career?

She wants to expand it – geographically.

"I would love to continue to perform in major U.S. cities, and definitely perform more in Europe and Asia," she said. "I want to see the world and play music."


When: 2 p.m. next Sunday

Where: Vanderhoef Studio Theatre at the Mondavi Center, UC Davis

Tickets: $38

Information: (530) 754-2787;

Call The Bee's Edward Ortiz, (916) 321-1071. Follow him on Twitter @edwardortiz..

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