Meet Violinist Elina Vähälä

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By all accounts, including her own, Elina Vähälä is exactly where she wants to be, doing exactly what she has done since early childhood: making and sharing music. The American-born Finnish violinist began playing violin at age three and hasn’t looked back since. Although she made her professional orchestral debut at age 12, Vähälä doesn’t consider herself a prodigy. “I was very gifted, yes, but not somebody who seemed to have played the instrument in a previous life,” she explains. Today, the 42-year-old violinist spends her time playing her 1780 Guadagnini violin in concert halls all over the world. We caught up with her via email on a flight from Seoul, South Korea, to Helsinki.

When you hear about children beginning music lessons very young, they usually have at least one musical parent driving their efforts. Not so with Elina Vähälä. “I was three and a half years old when I saw kids playing violin and cello on a TV show called Mini Fiddlers in Musicland,” she remembers. “I was completely mesmerized by it and wanted to play myself. At the time, I was in a music kindergarten, and the teacher was convinced that the violin would be a great instrument for me. She recommended a violin teacher to my parents who was new at the conservatory and very eager to start with very young kids.”

Both of Vähälä’s parents are chiropractors – “music as a profession skipped a generation,” she explains – and it was her grandmother, a professional pianist and vocal coach, who gave her her first instrument, a tiny 1/16 violin.

Although Vähälä’s parents are not musicians, she has plenty of other musical relatives. “My brother is the solo cellist of the Finnish National Opera and I have two violinist cousins; one of them is concert master for the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. They’re all great players.” Vähälä also followed her grandmother’s example for a time. “I began playing the piano when I was six years old and kept at it for ten years, but I never really practiced, so unfortunately I’m a horrible pianist,” she admits.

Almost from the moment she began playing violin, Vähälä knew she had found her calling. “It felt like it was my thing, something so natural and normal. I used to wake my parents up very early in the morning, playing some song at the end of their bed. It was a great joy, and it was clear that this was something I wanted to do, always, if it was up to me.”

Vähälä studied first at the Lahti Conservatory and later at the Kuhmo Violin School and the Sibelius Academy. “I learned quite fast, but it was all extremely healthy and I was never pushed. I still feel the same way [about playing], and even now I often fortunately forget the career and business side of it,” she says. “Often, things that you try to do [solely] for your career somehow backfire, whereas projects that are driven by pure passion and joy are the most successful ones, [both artistically and] in terms of your career.”

Fortunately for Vähälä, she took to performance as naturally as she did to playing the violin. “It is important to start the concert life, or playing in public, as early as possible. That way, performing and sharing becomes something completely normal, and you learn to deal with the extra energy that is available in the performing situation, like nerves and so on,” she explains. “You can’t just study inside four walls forever and then finally perform. You have to let the performances be your greatest teacher from an early age.”

Vähälä will play Béla Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2 on the Oregon Symphony’s second Sounds of Home concert on January 13–15. This concert, which focuses on the environment, features Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, accompanied by an innovative video installation created by multimedia designer Matthew Haber. The natural world holds great significance for Vähälä, and she finds many connections between nature and music. “I believe a huge part of art has been tremendously influenced by nature throughout history,” she says. “A little example: a couple of years ago, I made a trip to Wengen in the mountains of Switzerland. While hiking and enjoying those breathtaking views, I came across with a spot where Felix Mendelssohn came regularly to recharge and seek inspiration. Brahms had his famous hikes in the forests of Baden- Baden, and Sibelius’ connection to nature was notorious. The importance of feeling connected to nature is so vital for creativity, because it tends to evoke the feelings of great humility, peacefulness, mystery, being part of something larger – all very useful and necessary during creative work. [Spending time in nature] should be mandatory for everyone!”

Vähälä has her own favorite outdoor activities. “I feel it strongly when I haven’t spent enough time out of civilization,” she observes. “Spending time in nature means getting grounded, clearing your mind of unnecessary noise, and just getting refreshed. I wish I had more time for it. In Finland, we have a very strong mökki tradition, meaning we go to our mökkis (huts, cabins, or houses), usually at a lake, in the middle of nowhere. I love going into the woods, and I love to pick mushrooms, although you have to know what you’re looking for, so that instead of dying of kidney failure you can actually have an incredible culinary experience.”

Although both Bartók and Stravinsky used folk idioms in their work, their music sounds distinctly different. Russian melodies abound throughout The Rite of Spring, while Bartók transformed what Vähälä calls “the essence” of indigenous Hungarian music into his own original sound. During his lifetime, Stravinsky tended to disparage Bartók’s music. “I never could share his lifelong gusto for his native folklore,” Stravinsky famously commented about his Hungarian colleague, without a shred of irony. For his part, Bartók regarded Stravinsky as both a rival and an inspiration. Vähälä finds herself very drawn to Bartók’s second violin concerto. “Bartók’s ability to integrate the folk music tradition into western art music is phenomenally skillful and organic. He has simply transmuted the more raw and elemental material into something very sophisticated, without losing the essence of the tunes and rhythmic drive. In the second violin concerto, the folk music influence is very obvious, but what impresses me the most in this work is Bartók’s craft, in terms of form. The topic for this concerto is variation. The second movement is a wonderful set of variations of very different characters, and the earthy and joyous third movement is a variation on the epic first movement. This gives the concerto a fantastic range of expression, but at the same time an incredible arching architecture.”

Elina Vähälä’s life fits her like a glove, but there is always room to imagine other possibilities. When asked where she hopes to find herself in ten years, she replies, “I’m ready to be surprised, but my dreams include playing more music, starting a school similar to the Curtis Institute in Finland (this is a wild dream but it would be fantastic), playing string quartets for fun, and getting a dog.”

by Elizabeth Schwartz