Ask violinist Elena Urioste what’s in her case and she’ll practically unearth a treasure trove. There are various tools that complement Urioste’s busy touring life: a chin-rest tightener, flyers for her Intermission music-and-yoga retreats, a spare bridge (a must ever since hers snapped pre-concert years ago), and a state-of-the-art Japanese nail clipper. There are several sentimental tokens, too, including a photo of her grandfather and one of his coin-roll wrappers—a nod to how a young Urioste would sort his spare change to learn arithmetic. There’s also a notecard printed with the Golden Gate Bridge that, after a “magical day exploring Muir Woods,” is full of her observations.
It’s no surprise, however, that she is most passionate about her violin—made by Alessandro Gagliano and on loan from the Stradivari Society. Urioste, who won the junior and senior divisions of the Sphinx Competition, was first loaned a “lovely” Michele Angelo Bergonzi. Years later, she was offered an upgrade. “I immediately burst into tears on the corner of 22nd and 7th in Manhattan,” she says. Within a week, she tested two violins. “It was apparent within seconds that the Gagliano was my violin soul mate.”
Describe your violin.
My violin is an Alessandro Gagliano (the first maker in the Gagliano dynasty), made in Naples in 1706. I am so in love with the warmth and depth of its sound—it has a richness that I look forward to exploring every day. Visually, it is stunning: It has a beautiful one-piece back that I love showing off, like a proud parent!
What gift does your violin bring to your playing that can’t be found in any other instrument?
I feel like my violin and I are quite symbiotic in our relationship. I have always valued a dark warmth above volume and brilliance, and I feel like my violin enjoys being coaxed and nurtured rather than attacked or pushed. Together we are able to explore the elements of music making that I most value: intimacy, sincerity, depth, and that old-world golden shimmer that I have always coveted in the playing of the great masters.
What do you know about its history and the other people who have played it?
To be honest, not very much at all. I wish I knew more—I tried doing some research ahead of a recent trip to Naples so that I could take it to visit its birthplace, but I was disappointingly unfruitful in my findings!
What initially drew you to this instrument?
Definitely the dark richness of the sound. Something about the instrument felt very cozy—like I was coming home to the sound I’d always dreamed of.
What is your instrument’s personality and temperament like? Does it remind you of anyone or anything?
My violin is exceptionally well behaved, especially for how old it is. I don’t know that I’ve ever had to get an emergency gluing for an open seam—I’m always amazed how proficiently it handles shifts in humidity, temperature, and altitude. It’s a lot more graceful than I am in those situations! My violin doesn’t necessarily remind me of anyone, but I have taken to calling it Alex. [Editor’s Note: The nickname “Alex” refers to its maker, Alessandro.]
Does it perform better in certain situations?
A little sound-post adjustment every now and then never hurts, just to provide a bit more clarity and push-back, but in general my violin is fairly even-tempered, which helps me immensely, because my nerves are enough to deal with onstage without having to worry about my instrument!
What are its strengths and limitations?
I would say that while it’s not the loudest violin in the world, its volume has never been problematic. People always comment on the depth of its tone, which suits me just fine; I have always prioritized depth over decibels. Personally, I would rather lean in just a little bit to listen to a heart-melting phrase than be accosted with a sound I’m not particularly fond of, so I love that my violin and I are on the same wavelength. [Laughs.]
If given the ability, what would your instrument say to you if the two of you sat down for tea?
Oh, I would have a zillion questions for it! “What was Napoli like in the 1700s? Who, out of everyone who has played you, have you felt the most in sync with? Have you ever witnessed any outrageous outbursts or meltdowns? Torrid affairs? Has anyone ever been unkind to you? Tell me everything!”
Strings Pirastro Evah Pirazzi medium gauge A, D, and G; Pirastro Oliv strong gold E with loop.
Bow “Recently I have been alternating between my own William Salchow bow, formerly owned by my beloved mentor Joseph Silverstein, and a Kittel, on loan from the Stradivari Society along with my violin.”
Case “I switch between my beautiful old Musafia with a paisley-printed red silk interior (I picked that fabric because it reminded me of the elaborate ascots one of my dear former teachers, Rafael Druian, used to wear), and, because airlines are becoming increasingly militaristic in their treatment of musicians, a tiny black shaped Gewa case. I much prefer the appearance of more traditional cases, but I do like that my Gewa case serves as a canvas for my Intermission Sessions & Retreat stickers—I love that my case can potentially serve as a conversation-starter about my music and yoga program!”
Rosin “When I do rosin (probably once every three or four weeks), I use Gustave Bernardel—the same stuff my first teacher told me to buy.”
This article originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Strings magazine.