In Conversation with Elena Urioste

Elena, you’re performing this year at the West Wicklow Festival on 16th May at Russborough House. Is this your first visit to Ireland and are you looking forward to it? Will you be taking some time out to explore more of the beautiful Wicklow countryside during your visit? 

This is my first trip to Ireland and I am so excited! No matter how quick my visit to any new place, I always make sure to find at least a few hours to explore. I’m hoping I’ll have some time to duck out and see the landscape — the nature of Ireland has always been especially intriguing to me.

The West Wicklow Festival celebrates the 200th birthday of Clara Schumann this year, as well as championing other female composers including Amy Beach, Rhona Clarke and  Lili Boulanger. Can you tell us about the programme you’ll be performing on 16th May? 

When Tom and I were putting together this program, we began by brainstorming ideas for pieces that we particularly wanted to play, with no particular theme or thread to tie them together. As it happens, we wound up creating a musical palindrome of sorts: the program will begin and end with song sets that we perform often and are particular favourites of ours; next in are two gorgeous sets of romantic miniatures that happen to have been penned by women; and at the centre of our musical sandwich are two Czech sonatas. We are both fascinated with the musical language of Janacek, and although we’ve both played his violin sonata quite a bit (even recorded it, separately), we’ve never performed it together. The Dvorak Sonata is a relatively unknown work, and we are delighted to share it with our Irish audience.

In 2012, you were selected for the prestigious BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist scheme, which turns 20 years old this year. How did you feel when you were given this opportunity and how has it enhanced your career progression? 

Honestly, my first reaction was one of total surprise — being an American, I didn’t know much about the scheme, let alone how I had managed to land a spot on it! I quickly did some research and was flabbergasted by all of the incredible musicians who had taken part, and felt so honoured, inspired, and motivated to put forth my best possible effort.

I had always dreamt of making music in Europe in addition to the States, so the opportunities that the NGA scheme afforded me — recording and performing with the BBC orchestras, making countless studio recordings, performing at festivals around the UK, and collaborating with other fabulous musicians taking part in the residency — were dreams come true. As an added and entirely unexpected bonus, I met my now-fiancee (Tom!), during my first year as an NGA — the BBC producers suggested that we meet and collaborate for a recording. Needless to say, we hit it off!

Congratulations! You’ve been described by The Washington Post as “a drop-dead beauty who plays with equal parts passion, sensuality, brains and humor,”. Do you think this accurately describes your performance style? What can we expect from your upcoming performance as part of the West Wicklow Festival? 

I think this quote is absolutely hilarious, and apparently the irony of me including it on my website has been lost on many! I find that most quotes from news outlets — and in musician-penned biographies, for that matter — tend to use the same  few buzzwords: “versatile”, “sought-after”, etc. This particular quote was so outlandish to me that I thought, “Ha! I’ll put it as the first line of my bio — maybe it’ll make people laugh.” As for my performance style, I’ll have to leave that to my audience to determine… maybe someone can offer me a new quote (good or bad, serious or silly)!

As well as being a passionate musician, you also describe yourself as being a  “yoga fanatic; voracious reader; lover of delicious food, semi-colons, and corgis; hopeless dreamer; and occasional scarf-knitter.” That’s quite a mix! Can you tell us about your love of yoga and how you’ve woven this into your busy concert schedule? 

I think it’s safe to say that at this point, if it weren’t for yoga, I probably wouldn’t have a busy concert schedule at all. A regular yoga practice has served as my physical therapy, preventative medicine, gateway to meditation, self-care routine, and emotional security blanket. The physical and mental techniques that I’ve learned through classes and self-practice have helped me with managing pre-concert and onstage jitters, the physical discomforts of playing an asymmetrical instrument for hours each day, travel inconveniences, the loneliness of a nomadic career, and my own insecurities and vulnerabilities (music-related and otherwise). Yoga has also brought me some of the purest joy, peace, and stillness — and taught me how to find similar moments in all of life — that I have ever known. I make sure to incorporate some sort of movement, be it a yoga class, period of self-practice, run, or even long walk or meditation in nature, into my daily life. These moments of motion and reflection allow me to feel centred, comfortable in my body and emotions, and give me a sense of home, wherever I may be in the world.

We can think of no better place to practice yoga than in the beautiful setting of West Wicklow! Rolling hills, glistening lakes and blissful tranquillity! Tell us about your “Intermission” project, which explores music, movement & mindfulness? 

My dear friend and Intermission partner-in-crime Melissa White and I both stumbled upon yoga in the summer of 2009, and our friendship was immediately deepened by our mutual love for this new physical, mental, and emotional practice. Over the years, we found ourselves frequently discussing the benefits we were experiencing as a result of a regular yoga practice: more limber muscles and thus greater efficiency in the practice room, better focus onstage, an easier time calming our nerves with mindful breathing exercises, and a greater sense of peace with the world around us. We talked a lot about how we wish we’d been introduced to some sort of mindful movement practice when we were in our formative years of musical training, and out of that notion the idea for Intermission was born: we wanted to find a way to impart all of the ideas we were learning and practicing on the yoga mat to our colleagues and students. We offer week-long Retreats for professional musicians (think a yoga retreat / artist colony combo); Sessions, or workshops, for students; and in a few months, we will unveil our new App, the first-ever digital resource for music, movement, and mindfulness tools in one convenient place!

During your visit to Ireland, you’re also giving a masterclass with Tom Poster for young violin and piano duos at the National Concert Hall in Dublin, as part of the West Wicklow Festival. This is a fantastic opportunity for young musicians to learn from inspirational musicians like yourself and Tom. What piece of advice would you give young musicians who are aiming to make a career from music? 

There is no one way to enjoy a fulfilling life in music: find what speaks to you, even if it may not look like what you had originally envisioned, and pursue it with a combination of fascination, honesty, discipline, self-compassion, flexibility, and gratitude. Music exists to make life better — how many other professions can offer that!? Appreciate how wondrous music can be, how lucky we are to have it in our lives, and enjoy the process of finding joyful balance within a life in music.

Elena Urioste (violin) performs with renowned pianist Tom Poster on Thursday 16th May at Russborough House. Their programme features music by Clara Schumann, Dvořák, Amy Beach, George Gershwin and more. For tickets, please click here or call (01) 417 0000. 

For information about the masterclass with Elena & Tom on Friday 17th May, please click here.