West Michigan Symphony looks to Women as Muses


Violinist Elena Urioste is a graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music and completed graduate studies at the Julliard School. Courtesy West Michigan Symphony

The West Michigan Symphony is getting a treat on Friday and Saturday, when guest conductor Teresa Cheung takes over the podium in Muskegon for the Women as Muses concert, which will also include a performance by guest violinist Elena Urioste.

Guest conductor Teresa Cheung

“We hired Teresa, because she is just a terrific conductor,” said Scott Speck, WMS music director. “I’ve known her for several years now, and I wanted the West Michigan audience to have a chance to experience her. She is also an excellent speaker, very funny and engaging from the podium."

Cheung is orchestra director and lecturer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and also serves as music director and conductor of the Altoona Symphony Orchestra in Pennsylvania and the resident conductor for the American Symphony Orchestra and the Bard College Orchestra in New York.

Since 2007, she has served as a clinician for Lincoln Center’s Meet The Artist program, and since 2004, she has been the assistant conductor for the Bard Music Festival and SummerScape, serving as rehearsal conductor for its opera and concert productions.

Speck said that Cheung came up with the idea for the Women as Muses concert, seeing the opportunity to highlight the importance women have had on classical music.

The concert will include performances of George Tsontakis ‘“Clair de Lune,” Felix Mendelssohn’s "Concerto for Violin in E minor, op. 64," featuring violinist Urioste, and Robert Schumann’s "Symphony no. 2 in C Major, op. 61."

Women as muses

Though the pieces being performed were not composed by women, the male composers all shared the commonality of having strong female influences that contributed to their creativity and served as an inspiration throughout their careers.

Tsontakis’ mother served as a powerful influence, Mendelssohn’s sister, a talented composer in her own right, influenced him, and Schumann was influenced by his wife, who was a talented pianist.

“In all three cases, we are talking about women as muses for these composers,” Speck said.

Female conductors in the industry

The concert does not just highlight the musical creations inspired by the female spirit, it also highlights the talent of today’s performers and the changing face of orchestra conductors — in the past, it was rare for a woman to lead an orchestra.

Speck said that women conductors are commonplace today, but just two decades ago, audiences weren’t likely to see a woman leading a symphony.

“Since I started studying conducting, it’s totally changed,” Speck said. “The only conductor I’d ever heard of who was female when I was studying was actually Grand Rapids’ Catherine Comet, who is French, was the first really quite well-known female orchestra conductor in the United States. It was the Grand Rapids Symphony that took that step of being pioneers in that way.”

Speck noted that female conductors are acknowledged among the best now, without any need to include female in the descriptor.

Guest violinist Elena Urioste

Urioste is a young talent within the world of classical music. She first took the stage at 13 and has been earning recognition for her style and technique ever since.

Speck said that Urioste’s lyrical style is particularly well suited for the Mendelssohn violin concerto.

“My interpretation is that she has an extremely flowing and lyrical style,” he said. “She really makes the instrument sing, and I think that works really well in the piece like the Mendelson violin concerto, which is a very tuneful piece. I mean, she has a great technique as well, but what strikes me more than anything else about what stands out about her is her lyrical style.”

Urioste is a graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music and completed graduate studies at the Julliard School. She has appeared as a soloist with several orchestras.

She was recently selected as a BBC New Generation Artist and featured on the cover of Symphony magazine. Critics and audiences alike have hailed her for her lush tone, the nuanced lyricism of her playing and her commanding stage presence.

She also received the inaugural Sphinx Medal of Excellence, which highlights young, talented minority musicians. She has won the London Music Masters Award, a Salon de Virtuosi career grant and the first-prize winner of the Sion International Violin Competition, where she was also awarded the audience prize and the prize for best performance of the competition’s newly commissioned work.

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